Meet Deqing Lian — A Deliveryman Trying to Make a Living in de Blasio’s New York

Chinese food delivery worker Deqing Lian spoke to Streetsblog. Photo: Jing Wang
Chinese food delivery worker Deqing Lian spoke to Streetsblog. Photo: Jing Wang

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The city remains in the midst of a crackdown on food delivery workers, claiming (without evidence) that they are a threat to public safety. Meanwhile, the well-to-do order food via Seamless and other apps, never giving a thought to the person who delivers the food, still piping hot.

So meet Deqing Lian — one of the thousands of underpaid, overworked and barely acknowledged New Yorkers who provide this valuable service and suffer the arbitrary punishment from the NYPD. Here is his story, which I am telling as part of a documentary project on the lives of New York City delivery people:

Tell us how you came to America.

deqing lian 3I came in 2000. Since that point, I am always busy  working. During my first six years of life in America, I worked seven days a week, up to 16 hours per day. To pay off my debt from the snakehead [smuggler] who brought me to the U.S., I worked two or sometimes three jobs at one time in order to earn $1,000 or so per month.

How much did you owe the smuggler?

I don’t remember exactly. I owed not only the fee, but also high-interest on the debt. I paid about $800 per month for about six years. I had to pay off it off as soon as possible, otherwise, they would beat me up and hurt my family in Fujian countryside.

How did you survive on so little money?

I have no money and no time to go shopping. … I wake up in the restaurant and sleep in the restaurant. I am not going anywhere so I don’t need to buy clothing. Often, I spent about $30 per month for personal expenses. In the hardest times, I spent only a dollar a month. At our time, in late 1990s to early 2000s, most of us came from the rural areas of the Fujian province in China. It’s very common for us to be a “slave” for five to 10 years to pay off these debts. Luckily, after I played off my debt, I was able to bring my family to New York to reunite with them after two years. So it’s all worth it.

Why did you work as a deliveryman?

I don’t know any English and I have no chance to study. Working in a Chinese restaurant is my only option. Doing delivery work is a good position for a lot of us. My base salary is about $40 per day, plus tips from customers. Usually people tip me about $2 to $4 for each delivery. Many times, people forget to give tips or just give me some coins.

deqing lian 2

What happens when there are snowstorms? The city shuts down, but you still have to work, right?

I use to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and I never take a day off, no matter whether is windy, rainy, or snowy. My wife is sick, so she is not able to work right now. I don’t mind working hard to support our family. Right now, the police are the biggest challenge for us. The police just approach us from behind, stop us, and give us tickets for reasons we don’t understand. One time, I received five tickets at one stop and I had to go to court. There was no explanation or translation. The tickets claimed I did not wear a helmet and vest, but I had them on when he stopped me. I believes that I received those tickets because I cannot speak English. I went to court to contest those tickets, but there was no translator for me the whole time. I was unable to argue my side and I didn’t know what was going on. At court, they just asked me to say “Yes” or “No,” and to pay $400 for those tickets.

How often do you receive tickets?

On average, I receive about a ticket every month and pay about $200 monthly in fines. To pay the fines, I have to work for free for a couple of days. That’s why lot of time, we break traffic rules to avoid contact with the police, which makes it more dangerous for us and for others. I feel like a rat on the street. We are really scared of being ticketed. We warn each other to take different routes once we see police. We are very angry about the crackdown. For us, without e-bikes, we will first lose our jobs, because we are too old to ride bicycles to make deliveries for 10 hours. Our families will be in trouble. When I ride a regular bike, I barely earn enough money to pay my rent. We won’t able to able to afford to live.

But the mayor said that the police will fine the restaurant owners instead of delivery workers.

The mayor has no idea about our work. The restaurant owners don’t care how we do deliveries. Delivery workers own their e-bikes, and thus restaurant owners will have nothing to do with ticketing. It is all on us.

jing wangJing Wang is a New York-based Chinese filmmaker, currently working on the documentary, “Delivery Justice.” With support from the Biking Public Project team, Wang interviewed dozens of immigrant delivery workers to personalize their stories. The film is in post-production, but needs additional financing. Wang is raising money to finish the film. Donations can be sent via PayPal.

  • Dan

    The reason that they are a threat to public safety is that they ride the wrong way on one-way streets, ride on sidewalks (not even human-powered bicycles are allowed on sidewalks) and speed along at car-like speeds while doing so without wearing helmets. So, not only are they a danger to other people, but they are also endangering their own lives. If they followed and were held to the same rules that other motorists and bicyclists are, I would support them, but their actions are often reckless and leave others in harms way.

  • Instead of a knee-jerk reaction about the law, we should think about why people act the way they do. Sure, we can wag our fingers and hope people will cooperate but that’s not how things work. If it did, we could solve the problem tomorrow since there’s been no shortage of finger wagging in this city.

    Delivery workers go the wrong way, in part, because one-way streets are for cars. Instead, more two-way bike lanes or even car-free streets would solve this. Beyond that, what if the workers could be unionized and paid a fair hourly wage so they didn’t have to subsist on tips? That might help them slow down a bit as their livelihood wouldn’t then depend on them making as many deliveries as possible over the course of their shifts.

    Our support for the people who work hard to keep this city fed should not be contingent on them following “the same rules that other motorists and bicyclists” follow. Our support for them means advocating for fair working conditions and safe streets.

    Thanks, Streetsblog, for publishing this piece. I’d love to hear from more delivery workers as I think that humanizing these men is a big part of how we can help end the mayor’s cruel crackdown.

  • AnoNYC

    Thanks for covering this.

    The major loves to talk about social justice, but is so blind when it comes to mobility/transportation and its impact on people’s lives.

  • goodcow

    See also: the absurd amount of subsidies being poured into NYC Ferry, while the city does nothing to help improve bus service where it can via DOT, and not contributing any subsidy to CitiBike.

  • djx

    “Our support for the people who work hard to keep this city fed should not be contingent on them following “the same rules that other motorists and bicyclists” follow. Our support for them means advocating for fair working conditions and safe streets.”

    THIS

  • AnoNYC

    They?

    All street users break the rules in different ways. Some put others in danger, while others are more of an annoyance.

    And I have never seen someone on an ebike riding at full speed on a sidewalk with people and objects to crash into. It’s usually for the start/stop of the trip if at all, and typically a bit faster than walking speed. If high speed riding was commonplace on crowded sidewalks, there would be a substantial number of collisions.

    And regular bicyclists do the same things you mention.

    Let’s have law enforcement crackdown on behaviors that put others in danger, but fining or confiscating ebikes just because is poor policy.

  • JarekFA

    Hey, go fuck yourself.

  • Joe R.

    Try living this guy’s life for even one week. My guess is you’ll be running home to your mother crying like a little baby. What the Mayor is doing here is beyond cruel. These delivery people are already suffering due to low wages, difficult work, long hours exposed to the elements, punishing debt, and poor living conditions. And now the Mayor fines them for nonsense offenses, or takes away their means of earning a living because of complainers like you. You should be ashamed of yourself. I think everyone who complains about these delivery people should be forced to live their life for a few months. Not just do their job, but sleep where they sleep, eat what they eat, pay off whatever debts they own, get harassed by the cops like they do, etc. Maybe if you go through that you’ll have a bit of empathy. At best what people like him need to do to earn a living constitutes a low-level annoyance, of which there are many in urban areas. Just deal with it, the same as people have for generations, instead of sicing the cops on him.

    I really hope there’s a special place in hell for all the petty complainers where they’ll be doing what this guy does for all eternity.

  • djx

    Well said.

  • Joe R.

    There’s almost nothing these delivery people do that puts others in danger. Remember at the end of the day they want to come home whole. A collision with a pedestrian can put them out of commission for days, weeks, even forever. They’re not going to risk that to save a few seconds. Despite the crowd screaming the sky is falling, at best what the delivery people need to do to earn a living constitutes a low-level annoyance, not a major threat to public safety like the mayor and some vocal complainers would have you believe.

  • Ah come on, where is your sense of drama. Personally I am amused by all these descriptions of terror-bicyclists roving the city, wantonly colliding with pedestrians left and right, no regard for even their own safety! And worst of all, they’re not wearing helmets!

  • HamTech87

    Thanks for this article. Here’s a great short film called “Mamadou Warma: Deliveryman” made by an NYU film recent grad.
    “Escaping political persecution in Burkina Faso, Mamadou Warma came to the United States for a new lease on life. Ride along and experience the highs and lows of bicycle delivery in NYC.”

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    “We’re idiots, babe, It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves”

  • AMH

    Really great, thanks for sharing!

  • Thomas Moore

    A few years ago, at a community meeting on the upper east side, an elected official complained to a police captain about the “dangerous” delivery people. The captain’s response, “Tell your constituents to cook their own meals and you solve the problem.”

  • cjstephens

    So this guy is living in conditions that are as near to slavery as we have in this country today, and you’re seeing that the biggest problem is his bicycle? Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. While we don’t know all the details of his life from this interview, it appears that he came here illegally (spending every penny his first years to pay off a snakehead). Maybe that’s the root of the problem? Because he has no legal status (and has learned no English in the past eighteen years of living here), he can do nothing about getting exploited first by the smugglers and next by the restaurant owners. Since he has no recourse to the courts because he was here illegally, he can’t complain about those who are abusing him. Yes, restaurant patrons are benefiting by getting cheap delivery, but if there weren’t a pool of workers ready and willing to be paid starvation wages, the restaurants would charge a realistic price for delivery, or roll the costs into the price of the food. And we wouldn’t have scandalous human exploitation going on under our noses. But heaven forbid we try to do something about illegal immigration! Let’s focus on the bicycles instead!

  • redbike

    I agree with you about not ranking policing of bicycles — electric or otherwise — as highest priority, but I think policing working conditions ranks higher than our admittedly porous immigration system. This dude (and others in menial jobs) is here and working. How about requiring and enforcing humane working conditions?

  • cjstephens

    Right, but you’re not going to file a complaint about your boss if you’re at risk of getting deported. You can’t ask the government to turn a blind eye to some violations (immigration status) and not to others (inhumane working conditions), especially when the former promotes the latter.

  • redbike

    Actually, government — at all levels — is all too adept at ignoring some illegal behavior while cracking down on other illegal behavior. Selective enforcement gets lots of column inches here, deservedly so. And I think enforcement priorities should be reconsidered. IMHO, humane working conditions (and safe streets) rank higher than immigration status.

  • cjstephens

    Except that it’s the immigration status that leads tot he inhumane working conditions. It’s like prosecuting a driver for speeding but overlooking the fact that he’s drunk.

  • the endless disconnect we have in our society between inputs and outputs explains almost everything. food and goods from amazon are just supposed to show up magically at our houses and apartments! maybe nobody was exploited to make that 5 dollar t-shirt, or get you a 99 cent tomato. leaving your lights on all night and all of your electronics plugged in? well the energy source is probably fairy dust or elves or something.

    need to figure out how to get crosstown conveniently? all these new cars in the streets are magic–they don’t cause traffic! they are special cars.

    we want stuff without consequences. we want effect without cause. we want a free lunch. there ain’t one. i venerate people like deqing lian, whose lives measurably improve mine and allow me to be lazy over-privileged piece of crap on days when it’s too cold/hot/unpleasant to go outside, because i know deqing is there for me, working his ass off for a pittance, to get me my mexican food.

    what i really want for him and for all of his colleagues: better working conditions, a pathway to legal status, safer bikes that are legal and make his job possible, and more bike lanes on EVERY block of manhattan so that he isn’t constantly under threat from cars.

  • SteveVaccaro

    I’m with Doug. Delivery cyclists work in conditions as dangerous as coal miners 100 years ago. No one likes delivery cyclists riding dangerously and un-civilly, but we don’t get to a better place with ham-handed ticketing and confiscation on top of the conditions they already face.

    To me, the answer is pulling delivery cyclists out of the black and gray market economy, professionalizing their jobs, guaranteeing them the pay and respect they deserve, hand-in-hand with the training, regulation and peer-to-peer guidance that bring them into the fold of responsible cyclists. Offer incentives and a way out of the current shithole, rather than imposing penalties.

    Here’s an idea: eBikes in general should be speed-limited to 15 MPH, but allow delivery cyclists to use regulated, periodically-inspected bikes certified with a top speed of 20 MPH. A certified delivery cyclist with the extra +5 eBike capability would lose it if found to ride counterflow, on the sidewalk, or without lights. Allow professional drivers higher speeds as long as they use it responsibly.

  • Knut Torkelson

    So what’s your cure? Make all workers legal? Deport all undocumented immigrants? What solutions are you actually proposing here to improve the living situations of our cities most vulnerable residents?

  • Uchendu Nwachuku

    As sympathetic as I feel for the plight of delivery riders in this city, the fundamental fact is that these people routinely ignore traffic laws. They’re as fast as mopeds, but they ride like they’re on bicycles, salmoning, running red lights, riding on the sidewalk, not signaling. On a bicycle, that’s merely annoying. On an e-bike, it’s dangerous.

    Drivers rely on predictable behavior based on scanning the scene for subtle cues (including audio cues) in order to make decisions behind the wheel. Bicyclists move slower than cars, so 9/10 once a bicycle is behind the car, it can usually be ignored (unless the car is turning into the path of the bicycle.) E-bikes, on the other hand, can often move as fast or faster than cars on city streets. So now, drivers have to constantly monitor for them. They can approach from any direction at any time, silently and at high speed, giving drivers very little time to react.

    I don’t want the e-bikes taken away. I just want their operators trained to follow traffic rules just like everyone else and I want their equipment to be up to code. Instead of trying to drum up sympathy for them, maybe StreetsBlog should endeavor to train them on how to operate their vehicles safely and according to traffic rules.

  • Uchendu Nwachuku

    Don’t use their poverty to make excuses for their reckless riding.

  • nothing to do with bikes ..no matter which bikes, the delivery guys is still being abused by boss and NYPD.

    What about extending the rules that was just passed for Uber and force the business owner to (1) pay a minimum hourly wage of 26$ per hour for the worker (2) sue the NYPD and the mayor on inciting and executing a discriminatory strategy like stop and frisk for delivery workers?

    nothing we can do about slavery and snakehead …

  • local_labrat

    Illegal immigration from China is of a different character now – most likely a wealthy Chinese family that decides to overstay their visa. This guy came in 2000, back when China was a very poor country. Now there is a tight labor market in China and pretty good opportunities for working class people there, so there are fewer economic migrants. Unless his kids managed to go to a US college (I hope so), financially I’m not sure if this guy came out ahead.

  • cjstephens

    The comments section of Streetsblog probably isn’t the best place to have a nuanced, lengthy discussion of my views on immigration (but thanks for asking). I’ll rest on pointing out that sometimes by trying to be compassionate for illegal aliens by not enforcing immigration laws, you end up creating horrible situations that victimize the most vulnerable.

  • Vooch

    „…I don‘t want to see cars taken away. I just their operators trained to follow traffic rules and NOT kill or maim FIFTY THOUSAND New Yorkers every year…“

    fixed it for you

  • Vooch

    drivers kill or maim 50,000 New Yorkers every year.

    You would certainly agree we should ban drivers from our streets until they stop killing ?

  • Mukhter Ali Said

    Jewish/white NYC Liberals “Hey Let’s quota his kids in favor of our daughters , 52% of whom voted for Trump”

    This is white liberalism, this is nyc specialized HS affirmative action

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