Residents of a Sydney suburb have helped more than $30,000 in three days for the Chinese family of a food delivery rider whose death last month has thrown a spotlight on the precarious conditions facing gig economy workers.
Xiaojun Chen, a 43-year-old from a small village in rural China who worked for the delivery app Hungry Panda, was struck by a bus in the Sydney suburb of Zetland on 29 September.
His widow, Leihong Wei, told Guardian Australia this week she felt like her “heart had broken”. She is now the sole carer for their two children, aged eight and 15, and for her two parents who are disabled.
Dede Fredy, a 36-year-old Uber Eats rider, was also killed on Sydney’s roads in September. Both men lived alone in Australia and were working as food delivery riders to send money back to their families.
Deliverers for Uber Eats and Hungry Panda are classified as independent contractors, not employees, meaning that they are not eligible for standard workers’ compensation.
Wei said Hungry Panda had verbally promised to cover her flights, accommodation and meals while in Australia, but she did not know if she would receive any insurance or how much.
A GoFundMe for the family raised nearly $2,000 in 24 hours, and by Sunday had reached $33,000.
The fundraiser was started by the Zetland resident Ashlee Green who told Guardian Australia she would be transferring all the funds to Wei and her family. The Guardian can confirm Green’s contact details have been passed on to Wei.
Green said she created the fundraiser after an outpouring of support for the family in a local community Facebook group. Dozens of Zetland residents have since donated.
“I am transferring everything to the family,” Green said. “We as a community just want to hand it over for their livelihoods in general.”
The fund was initially set up to pay for Wei’s travel to Australia to attend Chen’s funeral, but on Friday the ABC reported that Hungry Panda had agreed to pay for the family’s flights and funeral costs. Green said that meant the money raised online would now go directly to the family.
“It puts everything into perspective that everybody needs to be respected,” she said. “If you see a rider on the road, at the end of the day they have a family.”
Fellow resident Remy Hii, who witnessed the aftermath of the crash, said gig economy workers needed more rights and protections at work.
“I’ve been a Zetland local for 11 years and saw the accident as I came home that Tuesday night,” he told Guardian Australia. “It was a really shocking sight, one I couldn’t shake from my mind. This poor man left his home to earn a few dollars delivering someone’s dinner and never made it back.
“The day I heard he has passed away, I returned to the intersection to leave a bunch of flowers on a post near where I saw the accident happen. I didn’t know the identity of the man at the time but I was thinking – if I were his family or friend and decided to visit the site where it happened, it would be nice to know that someone cared.”
Since then, the site of the crash has been covered with flowers.
“The whole light pole has got flowers all sticky-taped around it,” Green said. “So many people have gone there and respected him. Even though we don’t know him, I feel like we do.”
Wei told Guardian Australia she was extremely grateful for the donations.
“I sincerely thank everyone for their help,” she said. “When my husband in heaven sees everyone’s help to him, his family and his kids, he will bless everyone – and their family. I hope I will have the opportunity to meet and thank everyone in Sydney face-to-face.”
Hungry Panda has not yet responded to any questions from Guardian Australia, including whether Chen’s family will be eligible for any insurance payment for his death.
However, the company told the ABC: “We are willing to provide as much support as we can to help the family as we believe they must need help at this moment.”
Wei told Guardian Australia that she and Chen married in 2002 and lived in a small village in Shaanxi province. She said Chen had been making the equivalent of only A$16,000 a year in China before he moved to Australia in 2018.
“Xiaojun sent all the money back,” she said. “He spent very little. Xiaojun was the only income for our family.”
Nick McIntosh, the assistant national secretary of the Transport Workers Union, said on Thursday that it was unjust that both Chen and Fredy were not entitled to the same compensation as other workers.
Fredy leaves behind a wife and a young son in Indonesia.
McIntosh said it was “tragic” that both men had so few rights while working in the gig economy to make money for their families.
Hii said that laws and regulations around gig economy work needed to be strengthened.
“Since the lockdown they have become like essential workers,” he said. “People who have literally put their lives on the line so that we might stay safe in our homes. To think that they are still left in most cases underpaid and under-protected is unconscionable given the profits companies have seen during the pandemic”.
The bus driver involved in Chen’s death has since been charged with dangerous driving.