Toward the end of March, as new cases of COVID-19 ticked upwards in Japan, Yuya Suzuki received notice that the cram school he was working at in the city of Kyoto was temporarily shutting down.

Not knowing when he would be able to go back to work, Suzuki, a third-year university student, took out his phone, logged into his Uber Eats app, sent off a selfie and promptly reactivated his courier account.

Shortly afterward, he strapped on his oversized Uber Eats bag, jumped on his scooter and began whizzing about the city, ferrying food orders between customers, who were increasingly staying at home, and restaurants looking to stay afloat.

Suzuki, 22, started working as an Uber Eats courier in his first year of university in 2018. The service was new to Kansai, having launched that same spring, and back then Suzuki only worked weekends.

“Weekdays (in 2018) were not busy,” Suzuki recalls. “But I started on a Tuesday this time round, and it was busy right from the moment I logged on. Also, I noticed there were way more couriers than before.”

Suzuki says that the number of restaurants in Kyoto that had partnered with Uber Eats had increased since 2019, when he had last worked as a courier. This aligns with figures released by Uber Eats’ parent company, which said that at the end of March restaurants across Japan using the service jumped 20 percent to over 20,000, up from 17,000 a month earlier.

The other big difference Suzuki noticed was a major policy change ushered in by the coronavirus pandemic: Couriers would no longer be required to meet the customer when they delivered their food order.

“Instead, I have to leave the order in front of the door, ring the buzzer and then I have to leave. I also have to take a picture of the bag (containing the food) and send it to the customer, all on the Uber Eats app,” Suzuki says. “It’s a little complicated, but for customers and couriers it’s a good thing. The only people I have to talk to are while picking up the order at the restaurant.”

While the move toward contactless delivery is aimed at containing the spread of the virus, Suzuki sometimes worries about the fate of the order: “I (wonder) if the customers actually got the order. What if someone steals it?”

Suzuki was first attracted to working for Uber Eats due to its hassle-free entry process. “There’s no interview, there’s no senpai-kōhai (senior-junior) structure and you can set your own schedule,” he says. “Even starting back working after a year, all I had to do was confirm my identity on the app. Also, they don’t limit the number of shifts you can work, even during the state of emergency.”

During the state of emergency, Suzuki says he would typically log on around lunchtime and work a three- or four-hour shift. It usually brought in between ¥3,000 and ¥4,000 — enough, he says, to “(provide) a few days worth of food.”

Suzuki, who is not a member of a labor union, says he’s not worried about whether he put himself at risk of contracting the virus by returning to his food delivery job. His primary concerns are picking up work and avoiding accidents, which have spiked in recent months, while delivering food orders on his scooter.

However, a labor union representing employees of Uber Eats has repeatedly called for hazard pay and coronavirus protection for its members, demanding Uber Eats provide masks and other protective equipment, as well as an additional ¥300 per order.

Uber Eats did not respond to The Japan Times’ questions about the uptick in business during the pandemic and the state of emergency, or how many new couriers partnered with the service. But it did attract at least one high-profile “delivery partner.”

Olympic fencer Ryo Miyake began delivering food for Uber Eats last month in an effort to maintain his fitness and bring in a little extra cash during the nationwide state of emergency.

Since the state of emergency has been lifted, Suzuki has returned to work at the cram school. He still has the option to pick up work at any time with Uber Eats, especially as the virus could force businesses to close again.

But for now, Suzuki says the classroom is a much different environment: He doesn’t have to worry about racing to get orders delivered, or about traffic accidents.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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