Sweat pours down his face. The helmet visor fogs with his breath. The sun burns down as the seconds tick. Every minute counts between being paid and losing money. The light turns green, and he flies across the yellow lines, defying loss of life and limb each time - to make a food drop. So his family can eat.
The quote from Maverick of Top Gun comes to mind: “If you think, you’re dead.”
Meet 24-year-old Dubai-based food delivery rider, Kamran, from the ancient City of Saints in Pakistan – Multan. He tells a story that echoes the lives of the countless others in the same job across the city.
The Pakistani national grew up in one of the oldest cities of Asia, apparently named after a sun temple Mulasthana that has attracted numerous Sufi masters over the centuries. A gentle, timeless place but one that couldn’t support his dreams of making a good living for his family.
Poverty and the need to succeed
He arrived in Dubai in the summer of 2014 as a 19-year-old, determined to make a success of his life.
At the age of 16, he had to do part-time jobs to help his family. His father was getting old and money was tight. Eventually he had to quit studying after his first year of Bachelor of Commerce and take up a full-time job in retail sales. He earned about Rs15,000 per month, enough to meet basic needs but not enough to build a future.
Kamran begged, borrowed and came to the city of dreams - Dubai.
“I first worked in the Fruit and Vegetable market as a helper on daily wages. I made about Dh50 a day. It was hard work but an honest living. While there, I started looking around, talking to people who came to the market.
“I managed to save up for about four months and used it to apply for a bike driving licence. It took me about two months, meanwhile I also got a friend to help me create a CV. I had decided to apply for the job of a food delivery person.”
Starting on food delivery
He was successful and landed a job with a small restaurant in Dubai. The pay was Dh1,500 for a daily 12-hour shift, with no holidays.
“You never get a holiday in these small restaurants, that’s the nature of the job. I knew that. It was not easy … used to be exhausted almost all the time, especially in the summer. But, it was a good learning experience.”
And then he got a break. A new, international food delivery service was launching in Dubai. His experience and tenacity paid fruit.
“It was a great opportunity, especially at the beginning. I was offered a monthly salary of Dh2,800, an eight-hour shift and one weekly day off. It was incredible!”
But, all good things come to an end. The company got big and attitudes changed, according to Kamran.
“They started altering our weekly schedules including the areas and timings. So, you could finish one shift at midnight at one end of Dubai and the next day, early morning at 6am, the start would be at the other end. We could not cope, people were not getting time to sleep and recover, which was proving to be extremely dangerous when riding bikes.
Playing with danger on bikes
“Also because the areas would change, riders would struggle to reach locations on time. And they also changed the payment system. It was no longer based on monthly pay – it was based on commission per drop. We were to be paid Dh9.50 for each successful delivery.
“It might sound reasonable but you have to understand deliveries do not come in a regular flow in specified intervals of time. There are peak hours, so a rider knows that this is the only time he can earn. And that depends on as many drops as possible, as fast as possible. This pushes us. In that year, there were about eight to ten rider deaths.
“There isn’t much of healthcare options either. If we go to hospital, we have to pay a certain amount, even if it is as small as Dh20, which we cannot afford. So, most delivery riders will try and ignore an injury as much as possible.
“It’s not a complaint but that’s our circumstance.”
The point was raised by another bike rider Rana, who wrote in to Gulf News: “I belong to the bike delivery profession. In our job, you can find easily 70 per cent of bike drivers doing 12 to 16 hours duty in a single day. This long day and heat leads to fatal bike accidents. Normally in these accidents the bike rider dies on the spot. These drivers do not have proper health insurance or accident cover. It is a very critical condition.”
A new opportunity
Then a second break arrived. Another big, international food delivery chain was launching in Dubai. Kamran moved. Again, it was good with a monthly pay of Dh3,000, nine-hour work day and a day off. Additionally, you also got a commission of Dh1 per drop. Things were looking up.
“It is important to understand that we don’t work directly for the company. We are working for an agency that supplies riders for the food delivery company, so they don’t have any direct liability or accountability.”
I belong to the bike delivery profession. In our job, you can find easily 70 per cent of bike drivers doing 12 to 16 hours duty in a single day. This long day and heat leads to fatal bike accidents.
After about three months, the work hours at the new company started increasing and the pay was reduced to about Dh2,700. Kamran had just moved jobs, there was not much he could do and this was a better bet than most available.
Soon, the salary system was completely stopped and it became pay based on drops and commission.
“And if you missed a day’s work they will cut Dh99 from the overall monthly settlement. And if a drop is late or cancelled for whatever reason, we are fined Dh10. In case of a cash pay order, we give the restaurant money and once you reach the customer, if he or she refuses to take it because of a delay or some other issue, we don’t get refunded. It goes from our pocket.”
Do customers care?
“As for customers, well, they are a mixed bag. I’ve never had unpleasant experiences. People are polite, some even give us water or food.
“But, there are some who behave as if we are out to get them… an ulterior motive in our hearts. They just snatch the food from our hands and storm off. Very brusque and standoffish.
“It hurts but usually we laugh it off. It’s on to the next delivery, the next customer. It’s all part of the job. In between this, we get an hour off based on the pace of orders received, so you might not get a break for six hours straight. In the summer, this is hard because it gets hot and stifling, especially in all the bike gear we wear.
“Even on the break, there is no place to stop and eat or drink. We just wait by a pavement or take shelter in some building lobby if they allow us. I know this makes some people suspicious, thinking we are loitering and ask us to leave. We apologise and leave. But, we are not without fault either.
”There are some riders who will chat loudly on their phone, eat and litter, which then offends the people who have given them the space. So, next time around, we pay a price for that uncivilised behaviour and are not allowed to wait there.”
End of day
Once the shift ends, Kamran goes back to his shared accommodation in International City. About 12 people to a room. Not much space or privacy, but enough to have a night’s sleep.
“I have clothes to wash, have something to eat and sleep. We eat whatever is made for the day. Each one of us in the room takes turns, so the burden is shared.
I’m not alone there are thousands in this city like me, people nobody knows about, never hears about and quite often does not see. To date, not a single customer has asked me my name. To all I am ‘delivery boy’. I’m not whining, it’s just what it is.
“This is the time I miss my family, my home, the most. There is nobody to talk to, nobody to share a laugh or talk to about the day. Sometimes the pain is so much from missing everybody that it feels like a physical ache.
“I’m not alone there are thousands in this city like me, people nobody knows about, never hears about and quite often does not see. To date, not a single customer has asked me my name. To all I am ‘delivery boy’. I’m not whining, it’s just what it is.”
So, why stay on?
What will I go back to? I came with a dream. I want to start something of my own, give my family a better life.
“What will I go back to? I came with a dream. I want to start something of my own, give my family a better life. I have not got married either, because I do not want to burden another life with these troubles. First I need to sort myself out first, before I bring in another person into it.
“For now, it is just my bike and me, the desert wind riding with us as we make one food drop after another. And all we ask is a little patience….”