Express Delivery Couriers Put Shoulder to Wheel, Driving the Economy

With a cellphone screen’s weak light, a young man was checking phone numbers on a package. In the dark at night beside the lotus pond at Shantou University, couriers from all kinds of companies were unloading packages. Many of them needed to wait for customers until 7 p.m., including the young man. Chen Guibiao from Shantou, 28, has been a courier of Yuantong Express for five years. Every day from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., he drives a gray van with packages from all over the country to Shantou’s Jinping District and brings deliveries to customers.

An express courier checks a package while customers look on. Photo by: Chen Peipei

An express courier checks a package while customers look on. Photo by: Chen Peipei

Without base salaries, overtime on holidays, gas for their cars, or subsidies for their cell phone use, couriers such as Chen earn one yuan for delivering one express package. The more packages they send, the more money they get. “Being a courier is not an easy job,” Chen said.

In the last five years, China’s express delivery industry has grown rapidly. According to the report “China’s Express Delivery Industry to Gallop” in the China Daily on January 2nd 2012, Chinese who are increasingly shopping online have driven the express delivery industry. There were 89,000 express service branches around China by the end of 2012, according to Analysis Report of Development Prospect and Investment Forecast on China Express Industry. The number of express deliveries throughout the country reached 9.2 billion in 2013, second only to the United States, according to the State Post Bureau of China.

A courier contacts a customer at a delivery location at Shantou University. Photo by: Chen Peipei

A courier contacts a customer at a delivery location at Shantou University. Photo by: Chen Peipei

And at least some of these couriers seem to be cashing in on their delivery business. According to a report in Southern Metropolis Daily on November 14th 2013, some couriers in Shunfeng company in Shenzhen earn 20,000 yuan per month but have only four days off in that month — some even say they have no time to date girls. But most couriers in Shantou say they do not earn so much, although they work long hours — 10 to 11-hour days — and do not take legal holidays.Their salaries for one month are generally below 4000 RMB.

There are about 200 couriers from Yuantong express in Shantou. In addition to working long hours and earning low wages, they sometimes face conflicts with customers. What’s more, they will be fined if they lose packages or deliver contraband goods, such as cigarettes. Unlike other countries, couriers in China have a responsibility to open and inspect packages for contraband before delivery.

Lin, a 35-year-old courier in SF-Express company in Shantou, said, “We can’t earn 20 thousand yuan– there must be someone bragging.”

SF-Express is one of the best known express companies in China. According to the official SF website, the company has set up many branches at home and abroad, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and America. But even though Lin works for a large-scale and profitable company, he still does not have a base salary and earns one yuan for one package — the same as Chen Guibiao. “Being a courier is really hard,” Lin said.

Another courier, Zheng, works for Yinjie Express Company, which serves retailer sites, such as Amazon and VIPshop. Unlike Lin, Zheng gets an 800-yuan base salary per month. “Our express partners are stable so we do not worry much about few or no packages,” he said. However, as for the news of couriers getting 20,000 yuan per month, he laughed and said, “It’s impossible for us couriers to earn so much money.”

Couriers say they tend to deliver 30 to 100 packages per day in general. On special days, such as November 11th — China’s “singles day,” which has become a major shopping event — and at the end of the year, they deliver more than 100 packages per day.

Boxes await pick-up by customers. Photo: Chen Peipei

Boxes await pick-up by customers. Photo: Chen Peipei

For those couriers without a base salary, they make money on the packages they deliver — if there are no mistakes. According to Lin, the 35-year-old SF Express courier, the number of packages he sends everyday is uncertain. Without a fixed salary, “If I send 100 packages a day, I will get 100 yuan that day,” he said. If he makes errors, however, the money comes out of his salary. “The minimum express fee of SF-Express is 12 yuan. I can get 1 to 2 yuan from 12. However, if I make mistakes of inputting numbers or writing information, I will be fined more than 1 yuan.”

According to Chen Guibiao, the 28-year-old Yuantang Express courier, many of his colleagues quit their jobs after a short time. “It’s so hard to be a courier,” he said. “Although it is hard, I am young and energetic to earn more money. Maybe I will look for another job when I am older.”

Chen has faced fines for losing customers’ packages or receiving contraband. According to Yuantong Express Company’s official site, sending illegal drugs, delivering combustibles, or sending or receiving other banned items is forbidden.

“Do you believe that I was once fined nearly 10,000 [RMB] in all for receiving cigarette packages?” Chen Guibiao said.

In order to earn more money, he deliberately risked receiving and sending cigarettes. He was discovered and fined. He now checks carefully to see whether packages are legal before delivering them to customers.

Unlike those private enterprises such as SF, Yuangtong and Yinjie express companies, Express Mail Service (EMS) is owned by China Post, the state-owned business. A different courier also named Chen, a courier for EMS, said that there are two departments in the state-run express service, one for receiving packages and the other for sending them. EMS has an office at Shantou University. Everyday Chen goes out by motorcycle to carry packages that are sent to Shantou University and then brings them to the office, waiting for customers to sign for them. EMS couriers do not need to go out to door-to-door deliveries. He earns about 2000 yuan month.

Chen Wentao is a manager in Shentong Express Company, “I understand the hard work of couriers. Every day they have to go out delivering packages in the sun or rain,” he said. He said they generally only take a holiday during Spring Festival. Chen Wentao said, “If they all took legal holidays or rested on weekends, the logistics system and society would be a mess.” Many couriers quit after working just a short time, he said. Because of this strong staff liquidity, the company owners only pay social security for long-term staff.

Deng Fuhao, a student from Shantou University, is heavily involved with the express delivery industry; he takes student orders for university t-shirts at the college. The manufacturer regularly sends clothing by SF-Express. In his opinion, most couriers do not have very good educations, and it’s unlikely that they would earn very much. They drive cars and deliver packages to customers — it’s simple physical work. He recalls an incident when a courier kicked a small package aside. “If the package were fragile, it would likely be broken,” he said.

Chen Feimiao, a customer who always shops online said that most couriers she met were kind. Although sometimes they do not make deliveries on time, their job is hard and busy so people need to understand and respect them, she said.

Packages await customers at an express delivery pick-up point. Photo by: Chen Peipei

Packages await customers at an express delivery pick-up point. Photo by: Chen Peipei

In the dark, on a turnout road beside the lotus pond at Shantou University, many boxes were still strewn across the ground, as Chen Guibiao waited. Customers occasionally showed up, but not in a regular fashion. Chen Guibiao sent reminder messages to inform customers their deliveries had arrived. “I am really tired. I will deliver them tomorrow, not tonight,” he said. He was wearing a thin gray coat, handling package after package. After supper, from 7 p.m to 10 p.m., Chen heads to his part-time job: helping couriers from another company deliver packages.

By: Andrea (Chen Peipei)
Emily (Zhang Lei)


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