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Hungry for rights: Delivery workers in Latin America during COVID-19

15/7/20 - Amanda Romero, Diana Figueroa and Marina Novaes, BHRRC

It’s imperative that companies recognise and uphold delivery workers' labour rights and go the extra mile to protect them from COVID-19

“Stay at home” remains one of the main recommendations of health authorities around the world to contain the Coronavirus pandemic. Social isolation has helped immensely in not having even higher levels of infections in Latin America, the most unequal region on the planet.

Yet in this scenario of empty streets, one figure has not disappeared: that of workers riding motorcycles and bicycles with huge backpacks bearing the names of food distribution companies. Although leaving home means putting your health at risk, the ease and convenience of delivery apps sounds like a good solution for most people. On the other hand, these couriers are exposed to risks, fears and uncertainties, while their hard work has benefited entrepreneurs by the billions.

Technology has driven the emergence of the so-called "gig economy" or "shared economy", characterized by the delivery of services through digital platforms that create seemingly flexible opportunities for people to earn an income. However, these new business models have produced relationships that do not always fit into traditional working structures and have sparked debates about precarious and intense labour.

The changes these digital apps have already caused in people's habits have been accelerated by the crisis. Why do delivery workers submit to this new routine of intense and insecure work and of greater risk of infection?

The answer is simple: because of the crucial need to have a source of income. The more unemployment increases, the more likely these workers will accept any conditions to make a living. With more restaurants and consumers using the delivery companies’ platforms, the more market control these companies exercise and the more difficult it will be to work outside of them in this industry. At first they offer advantageous working conditions, but after having total control over the market, they begin to tighten these conditions.

In order to work as employees, delivery workers need to provide means of transport (a motorcycle or bicycle), and then have to acquire equipment from the companies such as backpacks, jackets and even credit card machines. Thus, these people start working already in debt and cannot stop working so easily when conditions get worse. It is a process that resembles debt bondage, considered one of the elements that characterize contemporary forms of slave labour.

In addition, it is also common to hear that workers have "freedom of choice", working where and when he or she wants. The reality is that he or she finds themselves compelled to work more and more, subordinated to algorithms, collection rules, commissions and productivity goals. When there is no real choice of work, the important decisions and control are all in the company’s rather than in the worker’s hands.

The companies in effect establish, with respect to their ability to hire workers, an oligopsony - a technical term to explain the existence of a small number of companies which are buyers of a certain product or service. And the higher the oligopsony in the labour market, the lower the wages and the workers’ bargaining power.

These companies invest in the legal apparatus so that the distributors are not considered employees of the company, but rather "collaborators", in order to eliminate any link that could grant them basic labour rights. The companies simply say that they offer the technology and, in order to work, the distributors must sign the terms of use, so the companies avoid practically all liability.

In Brazil and in Argentina the companies now offer the supply of masks and alcohol gel to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection, but this happened only after harsh penalties against them. However, the platforms succeeded in overturning injunctions that, for example, required financial support to the workers who were on leave after acquiring the disease. Some courts did not even condemn the companies in cases of delivery people having died.

The situation is arguably worse in Colombia, where the justice system has refused to look at all into these cases, which mainly involve migrant workers from Venezuela. In Mexico, a survey carried out by the Institute for Studies on Inequality revealed that 62% of the delivery workers said they had suffered accidents while making deliveries, but only 7% of them received help from the associated platform.

Brazil is the second biggest market for digital food applications in the world. Since the beginning of the pandemic, delivery workers mobilized to demand better working conditions. On July 1st delivery workers from several large cities went on strike, with more than 98% of workers in the sector joining, which means tens of thousands of workers.

On June 30th, around 300 workers from the Uber and Didi applications demonstrated for their rights in Mexico. Although the companies have offered some support against infection, there has been no change in wage policy or sufficient social rights to address the precariousness of their work.

For these delivery people, winning their rights and labour guarantees will be a long and difficult road, because they will have to face giant, multi-million-dollar companies that combine the latest technology with the more regressive aspects of capitalism. The core of this business model is the denial of workers' social rights.

Simple solutions can mitigate the problems mentioned above. The struggle of these workers is not for excessive wage increases but for better labour conditions. It is a conflict against the market power of large contracting companies. In the long run, better conditions can also provide higher  wages for delivery workers and lower prices for consumers, since usually higher wages lead to higher productivity, less stress and higher retention rates.

Society demands a minimum wage because no one should have to work 200 hours a month and live in poverty. Of course, from a social point of view, the more people who can work, the better. But no one should have to give their labour for practically nothing.

As we’ve seen that delivery workers are essential during this pandemic, it’s imperative that companies recognise and uphold their labour rights and go the extra mile to protect them from COVID-19, in Latin America and beyond.

Amanda Romero, Diana Figueroa and Marina Novaes

Researchers and regional representatives of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre for South America, Mexico and Central America, and Brazil