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  • Writer's picture香港基督教工業委員會

When Food Delivery Couriers Meet the Workers in the Vineyard: A Labour Reflection on Matthew 20:1-16



Labour Sunday 2022


When Food Delivery Couriers Meet the Workers in the Vineyard:

A Labour Reflection on Matthew 20:1-16


Text: Matthew 20:1-16


May 1, 2022 (May Day 2022)


Food delivery

The platform economy is deeply integrated into the lives of Hong Kong people, especially young people, as we visit different product platforms for various services, including shopping, transportation (e.g. Uber or Taxi Apps), and food delivery. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the food delivery industry develops fast because food orders soar rapidly. Under the government’s strict measures, Hong Kong people are restricted from dining in restaurants so the demand for food delivery increases tremendously. At the same time, labour supply goes up too due to the emergence of a huge unemployed population caused by stoppage or recession of individual industries. The food delivery industry has recruited numerous people because the industry demands low personal qualifications. Among the workers in the industry, a substantial portion is ethnic minority groups. Pakistani group is the largest one, and Indian group comes second.


How free are the workers under “self-employment”?

There is a general perception that food delivery work is free and flexible, so couriers can manage their own time. Such freedom, however, emerges from a self-employment model. In this self-employment model, couriers assume all kinds of risks without labour protection and occupational safety protection. The only protection is an accident insurance which can cover a life with around HK$300,000 only. The most common risk is transport accidents of the cyclists or motorcyclists during their hasty food delivery rides. In the first half of 2021, 196 accidents platform couriers were involved. Twenty-four of the accidents were serious cases, but all the cases are not classified as occupational injuries[1].


If a food delivery courier gets infected with COVID, platform company suspends his/her account immediately so s/he is not allowed to work and has no income. Even after his/her infection turns negative, the company does not necessarily re-activate his/her account. The courier still cannot work anymore and earn no income.


There is a common belief that food delivery workers could work on their own schedules, but the real situation is that if a courier wishes to get desired work timeslots or consecutive work timeslots for his/her work, s/he must take all the orders assigned to him/her. Otherwise, s/he will be punished and it is difficult for him/her toget desired work timeslots. Their income thus drops immediately.


In the foodpanda strike in last November, workers complained about the calculation of the distance on delivery. The Hong Kong office stated that the calculation formula had been under full control of the head-office in Germany. The head-office, according to its own assessment, adjusts the calculation formula in the algorithm, but it does not take into account the concrete geographical situations in the local areas. The distance corresponds to the service fee a courier can earn, but the algorithm only counts the direct distance on the map. The exact distance in the local area may be vastly different from that by simple map-reading. There may be twists and turns of the roads.


The rapid growth of the number of couriers due to huge unemployment is bigger than the growth of food orders. Therefore, each courier, on average, receives fewer orders and earns less accordingly. Platform companies still enjoy the profit due to rapid growth of food orders but workers eat all fruit of loss. The Riders’ Rights Concern Group, a working group under the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, has been monitoring the income of the food delivery couriers of foodpanda[2].


Chart 1: The trend of the average total peak hour extra service fee (Hong Kong foodpanda couriers)


Chart 1 shows that there was a stable drop of the average total peak hour extra service fee of all kinds of foodpanda couriers in Hong Kong from early July to late November last year. After the foodpanda strike in mid-November last year, the drop slowed down and kept stable in the lowest level later. There was a short growth from mid to late February this year, but it went down again in March.


Reduction of service fee goes along fewer orders; couriers suffer double loss. A former foodpanda walker, A-Man (an alias) shares[3]:


When I was online, my busy time was fragmented. It was not uncommon that I had had no order more than an hour. I sat in a park and was waiting with full attention for order alarm. During sitting in the park, I was very confused. I looked like being at rest because I did not pick up any order. But at the same time, I felt that I was working because I had to be there and wait for order. I could not do anything but wait for order there.

Furthermore, the work timeslots assigned to me were fragmented too. In foodpanda, each timeslot for a walker lasted for 1.5 to 3 hours. There was no guarantee that I could pick up consecutive work timeslots. It could be more than an hour between the two timeslots I could compete for. In-between the two timeslots, I had no choice but take a break and wait without pay. If the time gap did not allow me to go home for a rest, I would stay on street only and do nothing. It wasted time indeed. Although I did not count the work timeslots carefully, in the last two weeks, fewer 3-hour timeslots were assigned to me and it was more difficult for me to get consecutive work timeslots.

“Wait and wait” is a common experience of food delivery couriers. Couriers must pay full attention to their smartphones and cannot do anything, but the waiting time is unpaid no matter how long it is. Some couriers share that they even earn less than the legal minimum hourly payment sometimes. Walker A-Man states:


Due to lack of basic hourly wage, if I could not get order for a long time, my hourly payment would become incredibly low. I could only prolong my working hours in order to earn the amount I found satisfactory. But it not only made me terribly tired, but forced my life to be occupied by job only[4].

The parable of the workers in the vineyard

The sufferings of food delivery couriers look like those of causal workers in the time of Jesus. The Roman Government imposed heavy tax on its subject people. Many Jewish peasants were forced to pledge their lands to borrow money to pay tax[5]. Therefore, a huge unemployed population emerged in the Jewish community. Every day, they gathered in marketplaces to serve as casual workers and waited to be hired. Their daily earning was around a denarius, a day's expenses of a common family in the time of Jesus. They had to work every day without any rest day; otherwise, their families would fall into hunger. This is the social background of “the parable of the workers in the vineyard” (Matt 20:1-16).


In the parable, the landowner of the vineyard went to the marketplace in the early morning. He hired a group of workers and made an agreed payment with them, a denarius (20:2). It could afford the daily expenses of a worker’s family. In today’s terms, it is a living wage. The workers, however, who were able to find jobs in the early morning (around 6am) were skilled, young and strong, or had better networking. Biblical scholars maintain that the job recruitment stated in the parable is slightly different from what exactly happened to the job recruitment in the time of Jesus. Landowners would seldom go to marketplaces to hire casual workers directly. They would do so by agents or managers instead. The agents would made up payment agreements with workers and paid them directly (in 20:8, a manager was ordered to pay wages to the workers)[6]. So, if a worker had network with an agent, he would be hired to work earlier.


Workers longed for jobs

The redactor of the Gospel of Matthew is criticized for not paying much attention to the details of the parable. He rather cared more of how the concluding statement of the parable appealed to the target readers of the Gospel, “the last will be first, and the first will be last"[7] (20:16). Biblical scholar R. H. Gundry maintains that the target reading community of the Gospel is a mixed community in which both Jewish and Gentile Christians stayed together. They might live in Antioch. Both Christian groups had conflicts with each other. The parable was a response to the internal conflicts of the Christian community[8].


Overlook of the details of the parable may not be limited to the redactor of the Gospel of Matthew, but also to biblical scholars. Some scholars think that “the parable of the workers in the vineyard” is a parable about the Kingdom of God. So there is no need to take much care of the details of the parable, but rather, more importantly, catch the core points. For instance, how many times the landowner went to the marketplace to hire workers is “no more than the colourful details”[9]. Such position is probably because the scholars do not see the issue from the perspective of those workers who were waiting to be hired in the marketplace. The parable does not explain why so many unemployed workers were waiting for jobs. It could be public knowledge in the time of Jesus that labour supply was much more than demand.


As mentioned above, the workers who were hired in the early morning should be those with high personal qualifications. To the contrary, the workers who were hired later should suffer from lower personal qualifications. They could be old and weak, low-skilled or less networking. The landowner asked the workers in the marketplace, "Why are you standing here idle all day?” (20:6). It means that the workers were not lazy. They were waiting there for jobs the whole day. The workers replied to the landowner, "Because no one has hired us.” (20:7)


The workers had been waiting for jobs the whole day. Such depressing waiting could happen to them often because they suffered from lower personal qualifications. They were unlikely to be chosen to work early. They and their families were thus in hunger often even though they got jobs eventually. Their earnings could not afford a day's expenses of their families. They had no choice but keep on waiting in the marketplacefor jobs, even until 5pm, just an hour before off-duty. It was probably that they would earn less than one-tenth of the daily wage finally, but their whole families still relied on such meager earnings for the day's expenses. It is sad that the happening of waiting for jobs might repeat again on the following day and the days to come. An endless dilemma faced the workers that they either earned no income or waited for jobs endlessly. The fact that the landowner kept on going to the marketplace to recruit workers was good news to them indeed.


What happened to causal workers in the time of Jesus is also happening to food delivery couriers in Hong Kong. Couriers wait for orders. They look like “standing there idle” (20:6), but in fact they are waiting for jobs. Such “waiting” depresses people. As Walker A-Man says, “It was not uncommon that I had had no order more than an hour. I sat in a park and was waiting with full attention for order alarm......”. They are waiting for orders with work preparation, but it is not regarded as “work” because “waiting” is unpaid[10]. .


Protest of the workers

The controversy of “the parable of the workers in the vineyard” is that all the workers were rewarded a denarius whenever they worked in the vineyard. Therefore, the first-come workers grumbled against the landowner (20:11). In Greek, the word, “grumble” is “a strong and violent protest”[11]. The parable hints that it was the landowner’s deliberate act to irritate the first-come workers, so they protested against the landowner. If the parable wants to focus on generosity of the landowner, the first-come workers should be paid first and then they left. The late-come workers would praise the generous grace of the landowner when they received the same amount as the first-come workers did[12]. This is a deliberate dramatic arrangement in order to echo the concluding statement, “the last will be first, and the first will be last" (20:16).


Christians through ages try to explain the controversial parable. The Church generally takes this parable as an expression of Paul’s theology in the Gospel of Matthew, a dichotomy between God's grace and human merits. Martin Luther thinks that this parable is a teaching to uphold God's grace alone and deny human merits[13]. Different Christian traditions, including the Catholic Church, also see the first-come workers as the camp of human merits and the late-come workers, the world of grace[14] (The landowner did not make a concrete wages agreement with the late-come workers. Their working time was not long enough to deserve a denarius. So the final payment was God's grace alone).


Today, biblical scholars do not see the parable as a dichotomy between God's grace and human merits. They are not blind either to the economic and labour context of the parable. Although the landowner did not conclude an agreed payment with the late-come workers, he promised to the workers a right reward, “I will pay you whatever is right.” (20:4) The late-come workers did receive more than what they deserved, but at least a part of the payment was their wages, and the rest was the landowner's grace. It is both the workers’ merits and the landowner’s grace[15].


How do we understand the protest of the first-come workers? Biblical scholars generally take the viewpoint that the reward of the Kingdom of God is beyond one's calculation and imagination. It is not assessed as the wages to one's labouring efforts. Biblical scholars maintain that the protest of the first-come workers showed that they were pitiless to the late-come workers who suffered from lower personal qualifications. It could be Jesus’ attack against the Pharisees' ignorance of the sufferings of the poor when he was speaking of this parable[16].


The principle of contract and mutual agreement?

The general opinion towards the protest of the first-come workers is negative because the scholars do not see the issue from the labours’ perspective. The Church and biblical scholars generally accept that the reward of the Kingdom is not based on the “work-more-earn-more” calculation. But the landowner's answer to the first-come workers is exactly a kind of “commutative justice”. The landowner said to the workers, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage (a denarius)?” The landowner paid the workers what he had promised. It was just. In today's terms, the landowner observed “the principle of contract”.


The principle of contract is a mutual agreement, but it could be concluded based on an unequal power relationship. Employers offer payment, but workers have no power to bargain. They can only “take or not take” the offer. “Not take” means that workers have no income and their families fall in hunger. This is the suffering the causal workers faced in the time of Jesus. Why were the first-come workers so serious about their income? It was because workers alone had to assume all the duties of their families. They worked hard in order to feed their families. Workers had pledged their lands but might still owe debts, or even their children could have been enslaved. Workers alone had to take up all the responsibilities of their own lives and their families. The society had no duty to support them. Workers had to be mean to any coin because the society provided no social protection to them.


In the time of Jesus, landowners were ones to consolidate the economic culture, “a person alone takes all the responsibilities of his/her own life and his/her family”. Landowners held resources. They made payment agreements with workers, but workers could “take or not take” the offer only. The workers either had no income or took the offer of the landowners. Employers made payment agreement with workers so that workers could pay the daily expenses of their families. Therefore, there was no duty of the society anymore. It could be even regarded as the grace of the employers. Under such economic culture, did the landowner reply to the first-come workers, “I've paid you all the agreed payment on 'the principle of contract', why do you protest against me?” But nobody asks if the agreed payment is reasonable.


Workers have no control about their future. What they can do is to earn as much as they can every day. If they can get more income, why do they not fight for? Workers can earn money today, but it does not guarantee what will happen tomorrow and the days to come. Unless there was social protection to protect the workers and their families, it was also pitiless to blame against the first-come workers who had been harsh to the late-come workers. The whole vulnerable suffered from no social protection. The principle of contract is not justice, but rather an exploitation of workers.


The sufferings of the causal workers sound familiar to food delivery couriers today. The couriers will say, “Yes, it is exactly what is happening to us now.” Platform companies sign contracts with couriers (not employment contracts). They are mutual agreements, but the platform companies hold control of all things and the couriers follow to take orders only. Otherwise, they have no choice but quit. “The principle of contract” empowers the platform companies to cut the service fee of couriers at will and suspend or close their accounts. The companies excuse that they do so on the basis of the principle of contract. So they owe no compensation to the couriers. But the question is, “Who decides the contract terms?”


Conflict, division or communion among workers?

When Jesus spoke of the parable, it is generally agreed that the ‘first-come workers’ refers to the Pharisees and the ‘late-come workers’ to the social outcasts[17]. But both the first-come and the late-come workers were unemployed casual workers. They were also at the bottom of the society. On power and social status, the Pharisees were elites and leaders of the society, but the social outcasts were those who needed social support. So it does not match the division of the first-come and the late-come workers in the parable.


The redactor of the Gospel of Matthew was concerned about the division of the target reading community of the Gospel. Although both the Jewish and Gentile Christians conflicted with each other, all of them were under prosecution[18]. Their division fits more the division between the first-come and the late-come workers


Such division is also happening to food delivery couriers in Hong Kong. Couriers are divided into two main groups, Chinese and ethnic minority groups. In Hong Kong, ethnic monitory groups enjoy less favourable status on employment due to the reasons of language, education, religion and culture. Since the food delivery industry demands low personal qualifications, the ethnic minority couriers take food delivery as a long-term job. On the other hand, Chinese couriers join the industry because they get unemployed during the pandemic. They take food delivery as a short-term or temporary job. Both groups are different on ethnicity, language, culture and the reason to join the industry, but they have a common goal that they need to work to feed their families. Both Chinese and ethnic minority groups have their own communities, and seldom come together.


In the strikes of Deliveroo in 2020 and foodpanda in 2021, the whole campaigns were also dominated by the ethnic minority groups. Few Chinese couriers joined the campaigns. The ethnic minority groups did blame the absence of Chinese couriers in the campaigns. Another saying is, however, that Chinese couriers did join the “Not-take-orders Campaign” in the foodpanda strike. If not, the management of foodpanda would not, in a short time, come to the negotiation table with the workers.


It is usual and understandable that both Chinese and ethnic minority groups stay in their own communities. There has been no racial conflict in Hong Kong so far, but we admit that such division between both Chinese and ethnic minority groups will damage the solidarity among food delivery couriers and the communion in the whole society.


Conclusion

1. An encounter between the world of the Bible and today's world

It is widely recognized among biblical scholars that a parable sets up a context in which readers can encounter (1) the world of the parable, (2) the speaker of the parable and his/her world, (3) the redactor of the parable and his/her world and (4) the persons and the communities which make interpretation of the parable every generation and everywhere. At the same time, our world also encounters the worlds of various layers of the parable[19]. By the analyses of the parable, the economic and social world of “the parable of the workers in the vineyard” is revealed. We can see those causal workers who had lost land and owed debts, but the society imposed upon them all the responsibilities of their own lives and their families. We also see the Pharisees and the social outcasts in the time of Jesus. The division of the target reading community of the Gospel of Matthew is also revealed. From the labours’ perspective, we speak out for the causal workers in the time of Jesus. Moreover, the sufferings of causal workers also reflect the sufferings of food delivery couriers in Hong Kong. Both groups of workers face common sufferings although they are in different time and different spaces.


2. Labour issues in the “the parable of the workers in the vineyard”

This parable is one of the few parables speaking of labourers and wages. The landowner promised to the workers a “right reward”. It is also a “living wage” which covers the expenses of a worker's family. The “right reward” is counted based on workers' needs, but not on the interests of employers. It is the exact problem of food delivery couriers today. For profit maximization, platform companies cut the service fee of couriers.


But the problems the causal workers in the time of Jesus faced were not just wages, but also heavy tax imposed by the colonial government, economic exploitation by which peasants pleaded their lands and their children were enslaved, the pitiless culture in which workers had to assume all the responsibilities of their own lives and their families. In today's terms, they were not under any social protection.


It is the same problem food delivery couriers face today. The platform companies maximize their profit by cutting the service fee of couriers. It is definitely not a “right reward”. It even may not be a “living wage” either. Self-employment is a way to impose all the responsibilities on couriers. The platform companies are not obliged to provide labour protection and social protection, let alone the Mandatory Provident Fund. Like casual workers in the time of Jesus, food delivery couriers today cannot ensure their families stable and prosperous lives.


3. The hope of Jubilee

As mentioned above, the Church generally explains “the parable of the workers in the vineyard” with traditional dogma. It sees the protest of the first-come workers as resentment of Jews against Christians[20]. We seldom place back the parable into the Jewish context. Jesus was a rabbi and lived in the Jewish context and culture. The social background of the parable was known to the Jews in the time of Jesus. Similar parables have been found in other rabbis' teachings. It is believed that this parable was familiar to the Jewish communities in the time of the early Church[21]


Biblical scholar Karen Lebacqz maintains that the social background of this parable is known to Jews in the time of Jesus. Causal workers pledged their lands to pay debts and their children were enslaved. According to the Torah (Lev. 25:8-13), lands should be returned, debts be canceled and slaves be freed in the Year of Jubilee. It seems that the demand of Jubilee had never been implemented. Karen Lebacqz takes the views of John Yodar that when Jews talked of debts and lands, they, at the same time, referred these to the hope of Jubilee. In the Jubilee, slaves were freed, debts were remitted, lands were returned and foreigners were received. Both individuals and community could have a new beginning[22]. The hope of Jubilee sustained the Jewish community and served as a base to demand a just society in which the poor could see their hopes. Today, the Church should try hard to follow Jesus to make “the year of the Lord's favour” (Luke 4:16-21) be fulfilled in Hong Kong. Therefore, all workers, including the ethnic minority groups, no longer become economic slaves and they do not need to owe debts due to their responsibility to feed their families.



Notes:

[1] Hong Kong Catholic Labour Affairs Commission, “The Cost of the Work of Delivery Couriers” (in Chinese), A Labour Look on the World, Issue 103 (2022/02), p.2. [2] Riders’ Rights Concern Group, “foodpanda Service Fees Tracker” (updated on April 10, 2022) https://wandering-cymbal-c2e.notion.site/foodpanda-Service-Fees-Tracker-fe887c13b13b4c079e577a745cd46f61#c5c889b96b064b818df29f4fb6340bf5, accessed on April 11, 2022. [3]“Work More, Earn More?: Wages Reduction and Change in Calculation” (in Chinese), Notes of A Walker, No.5 (May 11, 2021). https://matters.news/@LabourChina/%E6%AD%A5%E5%85%B5%E6%89%8B%E8%A8%9805-%E6%B8%9B%E8%96%AA-%E8%BD%89%E5%88%B6-%E6%8F%AD%E9%96%8B%E5%A4%96%E9%80%81%E6%A5%AD-%E5%A4%9A%E5%8B%9E%E5%A4%9A%E5%BE%97-%E7%9A%84%E9%9D%A2%E7%B4%97-bafyreienwaak73za42kmv44qgfcso2gaavmnqhkj7jzp6obpajzn46nluy, accessed on April 11, 2022. [4] Ibid. [5]“The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)”, https://www.theologyofwork.org/new-testament/matthew/living-in-the-new-kingdom-matthew-18-25/the-laborers-in-the-vineyard-matthew-201-16, accessed on April 11, 2022. [6]Jean-Claude Loba-Mkole, “Beyond Just Wages: An Intercultural Analysis of Matthew 20:1-16”, Journal of Early Christian History, Vol 4, No. 1 (2014), p.127. [7] The biblical passages quoted in the article are from the New Revised Standard Version. [8] R. H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp.398-399. See Jean-Claude Loba-Mkole, “Beyond Just Wages: An Intercultural Analysis of Matthew 20:1-16”, pp.127-128. [9] Francis J. Caponi, “Thomas Aquinas on the Parable of the Late-Come Workers (Matthew 20:1-16)”, Journal of Theological Interpretation, Vol 12 No. 1 (2018), p. 99. [10] “Work More, Earn More?: Wages Reduction and Change in Calculation” (in Chinese), Notes of A Walker, No.5 (May 11, 2021). [11] Jean-Claude Loba-Mkole, “Beyond Just Wages: An Intercultural Analysis of Matthew 20:1-16”, pp.125-126. [12] Karen Lebacqz, “Justice, Economics, and the Uncomfortable Kingdom: Reflections on Matthew 20:1-16”, The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, Vol. 3 (1983), pp.33-34. [13] Francis J. Caponi, “Thomas Aquinas on the Parable of the Late-Come Workers (Matthew 20:1-16)”, p. 94. [14] Jean-Claude Loba-Mkole, “Beyond Just Wages: An Intercultural Analysis of Matthew 20:1-16”, pp.123-124. [15] Francis J. Caponi, “Thomas Aquinas on the Parable of the Late-Come Workers (Matthew 20:1-16)”, p. 96. [16] Karen Lebacqz, “Justice, Economics, and the Uncomfortable Kingdom: Reflections on Matthew 20:1-16”, pp.34-35. [17] Ibid. [18] Jean-Claude Loba-Mkole, “Beyond Just Wages: An Intercultural Analysis of Matthew 20:1-16”, pp.127-128. [19] Ibid, pp.114-117. [20] Francis J. Caponi, “Thomas Aquinas on the Parable of the Late-Come Workers (Matthew 20:1-16)”, p. 108. [21] Rabbi Ze 'era shared a similar parable in the funeral of his teacher, Rabbi Bun bar Hijja (around 325 BC). His teaching emphasized human efforts. Similar parables of other rabbis focused on the grace of the Lord. See Jean-Claude Loba-Mkole, “Beyond Just Wages: An Intercultural Analysis of Matthew 20:1-16”, p.129. [22] John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), ch.3. See Karen Lebacqz, “Justice, Economics, and the Uncomfortable Kingdom: Reflections on Matthew 20:1-16”, pp.39-42.

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