Ageing society

Seniors find new lease of life as Foodpanda and Uber Eats delivery drivers – but at what cost?

For people forced to stop working in their late 50s and early 60s, the emergence of food delivery start-ups has provided new opportunities – and it’s a win-win situation for employers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2018, 3:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2018, 10:13pm

With a carefully-combed, sleek hairstyle resembling Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, Fok Yiu-wah, 72, effortlessly steals the spotlight in an office crowded with younger people. Fok is the eldest worker at meal delivery service provider Foodpanda. His mission is to pick up from various restaurants and deliver to his customers’ offices.

“The happiness naturally shines from the hearts of the customers when I arrive. When other people are happy, I am happy, ” Fok said.

After a dim sum breakfast each day of the week, Fok sets off for work with his hand trolley at 10.30am. During a three-hour shift, he can deliver two or three orders and earn several thousand dollars a month.

Fok said he struggled with boredom a year into his retirement, but this job had brought him back to life.

“I had about two to three friends pass away each year. It was heartbreaking. Now I can make new friends and am happier,” he said.

Like many advanced cities, Hong Kong faces the challenges of a rapidly ageing population. According to the government’s forecast, the number of people aged 65 or older in Hong Kong will reach 2.58 million by 2064 – around 35.9 per cent of the total – meaning that more than one in three people will be classified as elderly. The workforce, aged 15 to 64, will plunge to 3.92 million, or 54.6 per cent of the population.

There is no official retirement age in Hong Kong but the government requires recently recruited civil servants to retire at 65. Although private sector employees normally retire at 60, more companies have allowed them to stay on in recent years.

But many people who were forced to stop working in their late 50s and early 60s still yearned to work. Fok said the emergence of food delivery start-ups had given retirees better opportunities as the job catered to their own schedules. It is a win-win situation for his employer, who has hired about 75 elderly people as delivery staff.

“They know what service means, they know what it takes to make customers happy,” Arun Makhija, managing director at Foodpanda, said.

The booming industry also attracted people such as Sammy Chan Wai-kit who wanted to kick-start a new career. A rider at Foodpanda’s rival, Uber Eats, the former art director said the job had given him more freedom to travel around the city on his motorbike while earning a decent pay, that amounted to about HK$1,000 per day.

The 50-year-old works 13 hours a day and plans to stay in the job after he reaches 65 due to the flexible working schedule. He said he had become more energetic as a result of the job change.

“I exercise more,” Chan says, “I used to get sick for no reason [in the past] because I sat in the office all day.”

To better promote elderly working, Uber Eats in March, partnered with the restaurant chain Gingko House, an NGO that employs about 150 people from the silver-haired generation.

They launched a new menu featuring recipes contributed by elderly cookery lovers.

Both companies refused to disclose statistics on their business growth after the collaboration, but a bartender at Gingko House revealed his branch in Yau Ma Tei received about eight orders from the food delivery app each day.

“The key [thing] to take away is we will have the capacity to hire more elderly people with the support of Uber Eats. But the exact number is hard to predict. It depends on demand,” Kenneth Choi Man-kin, general manager at Ginkgo house, said.

Although both employers and workers were positive about the impact, social welfare sector lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun warned the scenario should not be “romanticised”.

Shiu worried elderly employees were not being well protected as the gig economy, a workforce transformation that engages employees on a short-term basis rather than permanent contracts, became more common.

He called on the government to set the retirement age at 65 and said elderly people should not be discarded from jobs just because they were old.

“Elderly people shouldn’t be going downstream in life,” Shiu said. “They should be allowed to stay in their own [occupational] position.”