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Middle-aged men in Japan turn to Uber Eats delivery gigs amid pandemic

A male hotel employee who works as an Uber Eats deliverer as a side gig is seen on an electric-assist pedal bike in the Tokyo suburban city of Tachikawa on Dec. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

TOKYO -- The backs of people passing by on roads on bicycles or motorcycles while carrying large square thermal bags have become a typical scene in urban areas in Japan. These individuals are working for food delivery service operators like Uber Eats. These jobs are strongly associated with young part-time workers, as they enable them to utilize their free time while accepting delivery requests via their smartphones. The Mainichi Shimbun spoke with several workers in their 50s who started such gigs amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    In one corner of a rotary in front of JR Tachikawa Station, some 30 kilometers away from the heart of Tokyo, a man was gazing at his smartphone screen with his bike pulled up. "Got an alert. An order just came." So said the man before he pedaled off in the direction of a nearby McDonald's in his electric-assist pedal bike. It was mid-December 2020, and a bit colder outside than central Tokyo, but the man kept himself warm as he pedaled, and placed his down jacket in the bike's front basket.

    The 51-year-old man has a wife and child, and his usual workplace is a hotel in the heart of the capital, at which he has already worked for 20 years. However, guests that use the hotel have fallen by 80% since around March last year amid the spread of the coronavirus, and the man has had virtually no work there. Although his employment contract is renewed each year and guarantees payment of his base salary, he has not received overtime pay, which accounts for a large portion of his income. His monthly pay has dropped by between some 100,000 yen to 200,000 yen (roughly $959 to $1,918).

    Residing in a house in the Tokyo suburban city of Tachikawa, the man shoulders a mortgage with 15 remaining years. His wife's child care-related job has not been impacted by the coronavirus, and their lives are not at risk of falling apart immediately. However, their daughter's junior high entrance exams loom for the family, and cram school expenses, including fees for summer classes, are a great burden. "I want to let my daughter keep going to cram school, without cutting back on various things," said the father. He took on the challenge of working as a deliverer, which seemed to be a job with low infection risks that could supplement his income.

    The man first made an online purchase of a large backpack that included an Uber logo and an insulation function. The backpack took three weeks to arrive after making the order, perhaps because many others had also decided to begin this side gig under the state of emergency.

    The process for starting the job is easy, and requires no interview. The system works so that once an individual presents personal identification, and goes on to agree to the outlined terms, they can receive orders right away. The man made his debut as a delivery worker last May, using his wife's bike.

    Uber Eats deliverers can view orders to nearby stores on a smartphone app based on location information of where they are currently at. They can then choose whether they will possibly take on the deliveries.

    The man's first delivery job was ramen for two, which is said to be difficult for beginners. He recalled being nervous as he transported the food, worrying that he might spill it. The inside of his mouth was apparently parched after the delivery, and he returned home that day worn out from the three or so deliveries he handled.

    As he became gradually accustomed to the job, he worked for longer hours. On some days, he made deliveries from 9 a.m. to an hour past midnight of the following day. After a while, he purchased a used bike with electric-assist pedals. He found that he lost 9 kilograms. The man spoke of being nervous all the time when he pedals on roads alongside cars, and said, "You'll get into an accident if you aren't focusing fairly well. Even if there's a bicycle lane, it's narrow and there are times when cars are in close proximity. It's very scary."

    The Mainichi Shimbun met another man aged 50 in front of JR Hachioji Station. He said that he lives in the Tokyo suburban city of Hachioji and works as a taxi driver. His company has temporarily suspended business due to the coronavirus, and his commission has disappeared. As 35 years remain on his apartment loan, he is feeling the pinch of a monthly decrease of 200,000 yen (about $1,920) in income. Although he searched for part-time jobs as a security guard among other work, he couldn't find any, and began a side job as an Uber Eats deliverer. He made his debut on his son's three-speed bike which has a basket attached, and delivered meals within the city. He lost 7 kilograms as he worked up a sweat on a daily basis, unlike his job driving cabs.

    The term "jizo" (Buddhist statue) is apparently used among these deliverers to describe the action of standing by near areas where eateries are concentrated, in order to take orders efficiently. It makes sense that many deliverers can be seen near McDonald's stores that get many orders.

    When numerous deliverers gather around establishments, they exchange information with each other, such as which eatery is quick to dish out meals, or convenient equipment for fastening mobile phones to bikes.

    Such interactions through information-sharing transcends generations. The aforementioned man who works at a hotel also chatted with a young deliverer during the interview, and they asked each other if they received notifications for orders.

    A place known among deliverers as "jizo park" exists in the central part of Hachioji. The spot has benches and is a comfortable place to stay. The taxi driver said that he initially lingered in the smoking room a bit off to the side, but became a park regular after being approached by a younger deliverer.

    A male hotel employee, right, who currently works as an Uber Eats deliverer, waits for orders with another deliverer in the Tokyo suburban city of Tachikawa on Dec. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

    Delivery workers contact and encourage each other through Twitter, Line, and other social media, and the man said that he does not feel any sense of loneliness despite the majority of his coworkers being younger than him. He said, "It's a wholesome community with no hierarchy. I get stimulated through conversations with young people."

    Workstyles in which the employed do not belong to an organization and repeat one-time jobs, like Uber Eats deliverers, are known as "gig work." The pay is unstable, and the work does not guarantee permanent employment, but the male hotel worker said, "The work helped my household budget, and I would have felt down had I not done anything."

    There has also been an individual who felt "saved" by this type of work, regardless of the coronavirus pandemic. Shuichi Taira, 52, who makes deliveries in Hachioji and Tachikawa, experienced workplace relationship trouble at his company, and took the big step to work fulltime as a deliverer from the spring of 2020. He said that the job is rewarding as he is not tied down to an organization and can exchange information actively with other deliverers regardless of age. Some deliverers call Taira by his nickname "Legend," showing their fondness for him.

    While gig work has the merit of a free workstyle, it also has its challenges. Although workers can earn an increasing amount if they tackle multiple jobs efficiently, their income won't see any growth in cases where their labor goes to waste.

    Voices of dissatisfaction grew among deliverers in Hachioji from around the end of last year. Although it was mostly established that cyclists would get jobs in relatively nearby areas, while those on motorbikes would get long-distance orders, more cyclists were assigned the latter as well.

    Unlike the heart of Tokyo, where deliverers can take a series of orders by moving from one delivery location to the next while traveling a short distance, it is difficult to keep taking jobs in nearby areas in the suburbs. In order to receive the next order, deliverers often have to return to the city center where eateries are gathered, and travel a long distance. There is a limit to the number of orders they can physically handle.

    Although it varies by region, the basic wage for Uber Eats is several hundred yen (about several dollars) per order, and an additional payment is made based on the time period and weather. However, the amount of the additional pay is largely up to the company's decision. Touching on this reality, Taira said, "I have complex feelings mixed with appreciation toward Uber."

    While Uber allows contract jobs that a worker can take on individually whenever they like in their own free time, the unit price is low, and workers must take on many orders. The hotel worker, who apparently does deliveries even on the weekend, said, "I need to do so or else I can't supplement the drop in my income, and above all, I'll get worried if I'm not working in one way or another." Although his contract with the hotel will reach its renewal period this March, he does not think that the company's performance will have recovered by then. "I wouldn't be surprised if they fired me. I'd like to earn money when I can."

    The taxi driver also started to work more hours as he got used to the job. Around last fall, he began to work for over 12 hours a day, starting from 8 or 9 a.m. He eventually found himself suffering from knee pain with worn down cartilage.

    "I wonder if it also has to do with my age. My wife has been asking me how my knee is doing. It must be her way of asking how long I plan to continue doing this," the man said. Although he wishes to return to his main line of work, people have not yet returned to the entertainment district near Shinjuku Station, which the driver had depended on as a big source of income.

    The men pedal on while shouldering not just the large delivery bags, but also the bitter hardships of their respective lives.

    (Japanese original by Daisuke Oka, Integrated Digital News Center and Satoshi Fukutomi, Kyoto Bureau)

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