Coronavirus: Dubai's delivery drivers tell of life on the road as they count cost of Covid-19

Further restrictions on movement mean residents are reliant on these low-paid heroes for food and medicine

UAE's delivery drivers on front line in fight against coronavirus

UAE's delivery drivers on front line in fight against coronavirus
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Latest: Dubai to impose new restrictions on travel and shopping

In 10 years as a delivery driver, Sundeep never imagined he would drive down Sheikh Zayed Road without another vehicle in sight.

But after Dubai imposed tight restrictions on travel in the emirate last week, Sundeep’s motorcycle has precious little evening traffic to contend with on what is usually Dubai's busiest highway.

Sundeep is one of thousands of delivery drivers in Dubai whose work is a lifeline to people self-isolating to curb the spread of Covid-19.

The drivers are struggling as demand has plummeted in recent weeks.

Now nobody gives tips and I never see my customers. Customers say, 'leave it at the door' and people speak to us in cheap language

“Coronavirus is hell for us,” said Sundeep, who asked his last name and company not be used. “There’s no money for us to save. Where is the money?”

As of April 5, the UAE had 1,505 confirmed cases - more than three times the number recorded a week ago.

The government has ordered people to remain at home for 24-hours per day, unless they work in an essential sector such as healthcare. Only one member of each household can leave the home to shop for essentials.

Delivery drivers are an exception. In the evening, they sit at empty tables outside the restaurants and cafes that did brisk trade until a few weeks ago.

Sundeep earns Dh9.50 per delivery and has no base salary, averaging Dh3,000 in a normal month. His monthly expenses are Dh700 for a bedspace in shared accommodation, Dh300 for food and Dh300 for petrol. That leaves him about Dh1,500 a month to support his family in Nepal.


This month, there might be nothing to remit.

Motorists in breach of the stay-home measures face fines of up to Dh3,000, the equivalent to nearly a month’s salary for Dubai delivery drivers.

Food-delivery service Deliveroo said government authorities allow its drivers to work after 8pm as part of a number of exemptions to the directive.

“We have been working with all agencies employing them to ensure they have the necessary permits to operate as instructed by the government,” said a Deliveroo spokesperson.

The company said "orders are steady" and it did not recognise the decline in sales drivers described to The National.

A picture taken on March 26, 2020, shows a number of cars driving on a road ahead of curfew in Dubai. Dubai closed its famous malls and halted all passenger flights, capping a series of shutdowns on once-thriving sectors that serve as its economic lifeline but which have been sacrificed to curb coronavirus. The UAE -- which takes in seven emirates including Dubai -- has so far announced a stimulus package worth $35 billion which includes injections into the stock market and support for various sectors. / AFP / KARIM SAHIB
The usually jam-packed Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai wears a deserted look. AFP

As an added financial burden, tips dried up when customers began to pay with cards instead of cash to limit human interaction. Additionally, drivers have become stigmatised for their work.

“Now nobody gives tips and I never see my customers,” said Abdul, a Pakistani delivery driver of 13 years experience who asked not to be identified by his full name. “Customers say, ‘leave it at the door’ and people speak to us in cheap language. They put out their hands to us and say, ‘stay away’.”

Sundeep echoed the sentiment, calling for respect and understand during trying times. "What I request is that people remember we are also human, we are not animals so don’t be afraid,” he said.

Laundry services, which typically offer door-to-door pickup, have also taken a hit.

Local laundry service Washmen saw volumes drop by 40 per cent in the third week of March. Its employees have agreed to unpaid leave but workers diagnosed with Covid-19 are guaranteed financial support.

“Morally, paid leave is the only way to treat any employee that is directly impacted by the disease,” said its chief executive, Rami Shaar.

Tipping can also go a long ways to help workers at this time, he noted. “We do encourage consumers in the UAE to remember to tip the people that serve us. These are difficult times and a small tip would have an impact.”

Gig economy workers like drivers have suffered worldwide since the outbreak.

On Monday, the chief executive of ride-hailing app Careem wrote an open appeal to governments requesting support for employees suffering from economic hardship due to the pandemic. Careem estimates its Middle East drivers each need about $500 (Dh1836) a month to survive.

Drivers interviewed by The National were unsure whether they would receive financial assistance if they fell sick.

Talabat and Uber Eats confirmed their delivery drivers were entitled to paid leave if drivers fell ill with Covid-19 but did not specify how much drivers in the UAE would receive.

“The delivery sector offers an important lifeline for the entire community and is an essential service,” said Mo Yildirim, Talabat’s managing director in the UAE.

“The general public relies on food deliveries so they can stay home and stay safe.”

In the meantime, drivers ask those who can stay home to take care. “I cannot stay in my room because I work in the delivery service,” said Abdul, another driver identifying himself by his first name. “So we want other people to always be safe for us. That’s it.”