As of July 3, Brazil is reporting 1,496,858 confirmed coronavirus infections and 61,884 Covid-19 deaths, second only to the United States and widely suspected of significantly undercounting the actual toll. Fueling this disaster, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has campaigned against social distancing and fought to limit aid to the population at every turn. Inspired by Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, Brazilian antifascists have recently taken to the streets in relatively small, but important, demonstrations calling for #ForaBolsonaro (Bolsonaro Out) and his impeachment. The app food delivery workers’ strike described below is the biggest workplace action since the beginning of the pandemic in Brazil.
Felipe Moda and Marco Gonsales are app work researchers and members of the Insurgência current in the Party for Socialism and Freedom. Originally published by Insurgência, translated by No Borders News.
On Wednesday, July 1, app delivery workers launched their first national strike. Besides being the first the first national strike of its kind, it’s also marks Brazilian workers first significant participation in a demonstration with international dimensions. The organization of the protests has been organized by a Latin American movement of delivery workers under the slogan “I won’t deliver” that decided to call for a work stoppage on a coordinated date. Thus, besides Brazilian workers, Argentine, Mexican, Peruvian, Guatemalan and other workers stopped work to demand better working conditions.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the degrading character of working for companies that use delivery apps. In Brazil, approximately 4 million workers are employed via apps, the large majority of these deliver food on motorbikes or in cars. Thus, app workers make up a significant part of the 38.4 million (41.1 percent of the economically active population) people who work in the informal sector without labor rights and social protections.
In the context of the pandemic, the app delivery workers were designated as essential workers by the government and the population, playing a critical role in helping people confront the difficulties imposed by social isolation. Previously invisible, and sometimes unwanted, these workers have become “heroes” and “heroines,” as they are exposed daily to the risk of Covid-19 because they are out shopping for part of the population stuck in their homes. In other words, we are putting informal workers to work in the midst of a pandemic and, if that’s not enough, we chose to make them, in part, responsible for guaranteeing social distancing.
However, being called a hero has not meant better working conditions or better pay. On the contrary, the pandemic has shined a light on the disgraceful nature of their employment. This is because app businesses like Rappi, Uber Eats, Ifood, James, Loggi, and others claim to be responsible only for the maintenance of the technological infrastructure that allows consumers to find workers available to perform the services of their need. These employers refuse to take responsibility for the overall operation. However, when workers connect to apps, they are managed (that is, they enter an unequal and subordinated relation) by a digital authority that determines the tasks to be performed and how to perform them, monitors performance in real time, and sets the price – and, therefore, the value of their labor – in addition to determining bonuses and penalties.
Despite delivery companies positioning themselves solely as suppliers of information, in our opinion, these companies use new information technologies to increase their ability to manage, control, and organize work under the framework of the capital-labor relationship. This is an inherently unequal relationship from the worker’s point of view as he or she receives an income but produces value for the capitalist.
Therefore, the great advantage – that is, the great perversity – of this business model is to frame millions of workers as being self-employed and therefore having no work history and no guarantee of employment and social security rights. In addition, these men and women are responsible for providing the basic tools necessary carry out their work activities, such as motorbikes or bicycles and their own accessories as well as the maintenance of all these. They even have to pay their own cell phone and internet data bills.
As they are defined as autonomous, delivery men and women work intermittently so their income varies constantly based on a percentage charged for deliveries made. Because of this reality, staying at home means having no income for these workers, leading them to face a terrible dilemma: either they take care of their health or go to the streets to look for a job, a particularly perverse effect of contemporary capitalism.
Contrary to expectations that the increase in the demand for their services owing to social distancing policies would raise delivery workers’ income, just the opposite has occurred. According to a survey we conducted recently with thirty-six couriers from São Paulo (which will be published in the next few days), 78 percent of the interviewees stated that their revenues decreased during the period of social isolation. Similar results were found in the nationwide survey carried out by researchers from the Interdisciplinary Study and Monitoring Network for Labor Reform.
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This stems from the fact that the current health crisis is also a social, economic, political, and environmental crisis. Along with the new coronavirus, we see an increase in social inequality and unemployment rates, which is forcing large numbers of workers to seek app employment to survive. Thus, simultaneously with the increase in demand for orders, the number of delivery workers on the streets has also grown, allowing companies to reduce hourly wages. Moreover, as the companies do not guarantee working conditions, it is up to the workers to pay for increased expenses stemming from PPE, since the funds the companies provided for masks and alcohol gel are completely insufficient.
In protest of these conditions, and after numerous demonstrations in cities across Brazil, delivery workers are organizing their first national strike. Their main demands include: increasing the rate paid for each delivery run, an end to arbitrary blockages that prevent some delivery personnel from getting access to jobs, insurance in case of theft or accident, and for companies to provide PPE to reduce the risk of contamination. These are obviously reasonable guidelines for workers to enjoy minimum conditions of employment, guarantees currently denied refused by the app companies.
This mobilization challenges the current direction in which labor relations are headed since the widespread adoption of measures to make employment more flexible. Accordingly, everyone who supports a democratic society and all anti-fascists and anti-racists must actively support this action. We must stop the precarization of our work, a development that was only strengthened by the approval of the recent neoliberal Labor Reform. This state of affairs forces people to spend all day carrying food on their backs when they don’t even get money for lunch, as one protest organizer explained during the strike.
Thus, in addition to publicizing the #BrequeDosApp (#BreaktheApps), the entire population must actively contribute to the strike on July 1 by not placing orders for food and giving apps negative ratings in app stores. We need to join together with the delivery workers in their fight to pressure the public authorities to guarantee better working conditions for everyone.
[For international news and analysis from working-class and socialist points of view, read No Borders News.]