Immigrant Food Delivery Workers Struggle with E-Bike Thefts

Salifou Diallo has lost six bicycles since he started working as an app food delivery worker. (Credit: Maurice Oniang'o)

Salifou Diallo has lost six bicycles since he started working as an app food delivery worker. (Credit: Maurice Oniang’o)

It was a chilly Saturday morning. The streets were deserted. Swirling debris was intermittently lifted by the whims of the wind, churning in a delicate ballet around the feet of a man sitting on a bench in the middle of Broadway. He was slightly bent over, his blue helmet raised over his forehead. Beneath it, a winter hat liner covered his face just enough to display two unique tribal marks etched on both sides of his chin. 

This was 31-year-old Illiace Zabsonre. His face lits up with a grin when he was complimented about how squeaky clean his white sneakers are. “Merci,” he mumbled. He was born and raised in Tenkodogo, a province with a population of 160,000 in Eastern Burkina Faso. He is an app-based food delivery worker. 

“I have been doing this work from the first week I set foot in New York,” he said. That was June 2022. 

Zabsonre is among the more than 65,000 delivery workers in New York, most of them immigrants, a majority from Latin America, and a minority, like Zabsonre, from Africa. With each order, they skilfully weave through the high-traffic labyrinth of New York, all while ensuring that whatever was ordered is delivered swiftly, sometimes while the food is still hot. “Each order demands attention,” said Zabsonre. “Countdown begins the moment your phone pings.”

Stolen in front of a doorman

Beneath all this lies an unspoken occupational hazard that most delivery workers worry about — bicycle theft. Zabsonre is among the hundreds of delivery workers who have had their electric bicycles stolen, robbing them of their main tool of trade. According to a 2021 survey by the Workers’ Justice Project and The Worker Institute of Cornell University’s ILR School, 54 percent of the 500 participants reported having experienced bike theft, and about 30 percent said that they were physically assaulted during the robbery. 

Zabsonre’s electric bike was stolen last October in midtown Manhattan. “I had two orders to deliver on 59th Street,” he said. “I parked the bicycle in front of the building and locked it in front of the doorman.”

When he returned, his bicycle was gone. 

“The doorman said it was not his job to look after my bicycle,” he said. “It was devastating.” Zabsonre had secured the bicycle by threading the lock through both the tire and midframe, rendering any movement of the bicycle impossible, although he did not fasten it to anything fixed. In the very few minutes he was inside the apartment building, the thief must have picked up the bicycle, lock and all, and carried it away. 

Most electric bicycles come with a price tag that start around $1,600. “It was worth $1,800,” Zabsonre said. “A huge setback for me.” He has a wife and child back in Burkina Faso whom he supports. He also supports his parents. His father is ailing and requires continuous medical attention. When Zabsonre lost the bicycle, he had to pause sending back any funds. “I now must double my efforts.” 

The new minimum wage

Delivery workers operate within the gig economy. The major app-based companies the delivery workers work with are Uber, DoorDash, and Grubhub. The companies they work with do not offer insurance beyond occupational coverage for accidents while en route to deliveries, nor do they assist with bicycle maintenance or replacement in case of theft. This exposes workers to financial burdens and safety risks.

Uber and Grubhub did not respond to requests for comment, however, DoorDash said that safety is a priority, stating “No Dasher should have to worry about being a target for these disturbing crimes,” said a company spokesperson. “Every day, the vast majority — more than 99.9% — are completed without any safety-related incident at all, and the most serious or severe incidents, such as bike thefts, remain extremely rare.”

Regarded as independent contractors, delivery workers are paid a little less than the New York City minimum wage of $15 per hour. In a 2022 study conducted by the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, it was found that app-based restaurant delivery workers in New York City earn $14.18 per hour with tips, and $7.09 per hour without. After factoring in hourly expenses of $3.06, their net take-home pay is reduced to $11.12 per hour with tips and $4.03 per hour without. However, some food delivery workers earn even less, according to the study. 

“It was not always like this,” said Salifou Diallo, a restaurant delivery worker, current New Yorker and originally from Conakry, Guinea. Diallo is in his mid-forties. The distinctive creases that run down each side from his nose to his mouth are slightly broken by his tight-lipped smile, hinting at a hidden depth of emotions. He loves keeping up with current happenings on the continent, and on a recent afternoon, discussed the recent spate of coups in Africa.

In 2020 and 2021, Diallo earned a total each week of $1,200. He explained that these earnings have significantly dropped due to increased competition among app based delivery workers. “Today I make $600 and sometimes less,” said Diallo, for 12 hour shifts starting in the morning, “for 10 to 10 every day of the week.” This translates to approximately $7.14 per hour, less than half of minimum wage. “You can barely survive on it.” He shares an apartment in the Bronx and pays $850 per month for his room, he said.

Diallo is also the sole breadwinner in his family, which includes his wife, two children, and mother, who are all in Guinea. He sends a quarter of his earnings to support them. 

Last year, New York City passed a new minimum wage law mandating that app companies must pay city delivery workers a minimum of $17.96 per hour, in addition to tips, with another increase to at least $19.96 per hour by April 2025. The app-based companies went to court to stop the law from being enacted. Their appeal was squashed in December 2023, allowing the law to take immediate effect. 

Six bicycles in two years

Diallo was also robbed of his bicycle. He has lost six electric bicycles within two years, he said, for a variety of reasons, amounting to roughly $10,000 in losses. The last incident was in May last year. He had made a delivery in the Bronx and decided to get something to eat at midday. He had parked his bike and sat on a bench next to it. Two men approached him. “They sprayed something to my eyes and nose,” Diallo said. He fell unconscious and when he woke up, his bicycle was gone. 

Diallo used his modest savings to purchase a new bicycle. He has now done this three times and has also been forced to pay for two bicycles on credit. 

“You are never at peace,” he said, describing the times he bought a bicycle on credit. “You don’t work for yourself.” 

He added that in some areas of the city, like in parts of The Bronx, delivery workers are sometimes robbed even of the food they are carrying. “If you have an expensive watch, they take it together with any money on you,” he said, of the thieves. 

15,000 Stolen Bicycles every year

Roughly 15,000 regular and electric bicycles are reported stolen every year in New York City, according to Bicycle Habitat, a bicycle store that has advocated for urban cycling for decades. Reported thefts account for only 20% of the actual total, Habitat says, so the actual figure could exceed 75,000 per year. Only 2% of stolen bikes are recovered by the police, as reported by Bicycle Habitat. 

Both Zabsonre and Diallo chose not to report their stolen bicycles to the police because they felt nothing would come of it. 

“The other day a bicycle was stolen at 114th Street outside one of the famous restaurants,” said Zabsonre, adding that the owner, also a delivery worker, left his bicycle and went inside the restaurant to quickly collect an order. When he came out, the bicycle had vanished. It had a GPS tracker on it. Zabsonre and some of his colleagues could see it on 150th Street.” “But no one bothered to go for it,” he said. It was too risky. 

Going to the police is also not an option for people who lack legal documentation. 

“To report, the bicycle has to be registered in your name,” said Serigne Sarr, a delivery worker from Senegal. Additionally, some lack the necessary documentation to work in the country, while others may be in the process of obtaining it. They fear that filing a police report could jeopardise their immigration status or lead to deportation.

Standing at a height of five feet, Sarr is always smiling. On a recent afternoon, he hung out with his colleagues at the busy intersection of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard in Harlem, where many African delivery workers congregate.

About 30 bicycles and mopeds were parked here. Some 10 people were seated on their bicycles, while five others conversed on the side. The other bicycles had no one on them. Every few minutes a phone pinged. The owner checked it and walked into Chick-fil-A, a fast-food restaurant nearby, walked out with an order, and rode his bicycle away.

Most of the workers at this intersection are from different African countries. “Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Guinea,” said Sarr. Most of them speak French or Arabic, along with their respective regional and ethnic languages, such as Wolof, Mandinka, or Fula.

Sarr speaks French, Wolof, and Portuguese, the latter picked up when he worked in Sao Paolo, Brazil for a year on his way to the United States. He beams when he speaks of his time there. “I want to go back,” he said. 

Bicycle thefts aren’t just a concern during the workers’ shift hours. Sarr said some of his colleagues have had their bicycles stolen in front of their apartments at night. 

“You lock your bike securely and go to sleep. When you get back in the morning, the bike is not there.” Some thieves have a strong wire cutter they use to cut the locks, Sarr said. “The lock is hard metal, but they cut right through it,” he said. 

The journey

Zabsonre also passed through São Paulo on his way to the United State, but has no fond memories of his time there or the journey. He flew to Brazil from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. From there, he started a month-long, strenuous journey that included bus and long treks on foot for days with several other men through the dangerous Darien Gap, the dense mountainous wilderness that spans the Colombia-Panama border, and, finally, into Texas. Once he reached the U.S., he was put on a bus to New York. 

A palpable sadness crept across his face when he talked about that time. 

“I don’t want to remember that journey,” he said, flinching from the subject. “The mountain of death,” he said, showing a picture of himself shirtless in front of flags tied on tree branches. “It took us a whole day just to get to the top.” After surviving the many dangers of the trip, four of his companions were caught and deported back to Burkina Faso. Zabsonre continued on to New York. 

Zabsonre and his fellow delivery workers have a WhatsApp group that they use to circulate information on stolen bicycles, but this is done mostly to caution members not to buy them. Diallo has fallen victim to this. Once, after his bicycle was stolen and he was desperate to get back to work, he bought a cheaper one from someone he didn’t know well. “I didn’t know it was stolen or had a tracker on,” said Diallo. One afternoon as he was hanging out at the usual spot at the junction of Lexington Avenue and 43rd Street, he was accosted by the owner. “I didn’t have proof of ownership,” said Diallo. The guy took the bike, leaving him, once again, having to buy another bike so he could make a living. 

About the author(s)

Maurice Oniang’o is a Kenyan investigative journalist studying at the Columbia Journalism School. His reporting focuses on social justice and corruption issues.