Why delivery workers across the globe are rising up against exploitation

May 4, 2021
Conditions for delivery workers have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: cooperativa.cl

A car crashed into Servio Hernández’s motorcycle in February, 2019. Hernández, a Venezuelan migrant in Chile, was hit while he was making a delivery for PedidosYa, a branch of the German multinational company Delivery Hero.

When Hernández arrived at the hospital, the first thing he did was ask the medical staff to let his supervisor know about the accident. “There is nothing we can do for him,” the supervisor told the doctor. The supervisor turned off his phone and blocked Hernández from being able to access the PedidosYa app.

Hernández is one of millions of workers around the world, from Chile to South Korea, who hustle to deliver food and other products to people’s homes. If conditions for these delivery workers were terrible before, they have only become worse during the ongoing pandemic.

A study by Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, a nonprofit German foundation, Global Labour Unrest on Platforms, shows a global increase in protests by workers like Hernández. The study reports that “strikes have been sector-wide across countries”, and that the "pandemic provided the impetus and platform for workers to raise their voices against underlying structural injustices of their platform work”.

In Latin America, companies including Delivery Hero registered a 400% rise in home food delivery sales from 2014--19, according to a report by market research company Euromonitor International. Profits for these firms have skyrocketed, but working conditions have plummeted. Hernández, like other workers in Latin America, is agitating for more rights and for unionisation.

When the supervisor blocked Hernández’s access to the PedidosYa app, his ability to work was cut off. Hernández could no longer be assigned orders for delivery or for pickup, and so he effectively “disappeared as a worker”, he told me.

When a gig worker is logged out from a delivery app, it means the worker can no longer earn money from the platform. If a worker suffers an accident while returning home after delivering their last order for the day, the company does not consider it as an accident at work because the worker had disconnected from the app.

If the worker has to stop to use the bathroom or has to take a break to tend to a family member, then the worker must ask the supervisor to log them off for that duration; the worker must log in again to show they are back at work.

Supervisors can block workers at will, which is tantamount to being sacked. They can even erase workers’ entire history from the system, erasing their existence. This is exactly what they did with Hernández on the day of his accident in 2019.

After 10 hours in hospital, Hernández returned home. He could not leave his bed for two months because of his injuries. The company did not contact him. He received no benefits. In April 2019, he asked the company if he could return to work. The supervisor on duty logged Hernández back into the system.

When a worker becomes part of the system, they are required to buy and use company-branded products, such as a uniform and the delivery box that is attached to their own personal bicycle or motorcycle. In what was supposed to be a goodwill gesture, the supervisor told the employee in charge of this equipment to “give [them] to him for free” since “he is returning after an accident.”

A few months later, Hernández saw that his income was lower. He realised that for the same number of deliveries he had been doing a month earlier, he was now making 20% less. This was despite the fact that some of the distances he was now covering were longer.

The company — it turned out — had changed the conditions of work without any consultation or notice. After the accident and this change of terms of service, Hernández knew that he had to do something.

Riders Unidos Ya

Like other food delivery workers around the world, Hernández decided to help build a union. Along his colleagues, Hernández began to build Riders Unidos Ya Chile, a community of delivery workers who want  their rights recognised by multinational companies.

Hernández said it was a good thing that Riders Unidos Ya was already established when the COVID-19 pandemic began. A recent report by the International Labor Organization, World Employment and Social Outlook, acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic is “exposing the risks and inequalities for workers, particularly for those engaged on location-based platforms”.

Meanwhile, Hernández described these working conditions in a way that would sound familiar to food delivery workers anywhere in the world. “These delivery companies play with the workers’ sense of stability of working conditions,” he told me. “They find ways to ‘change the rules of the game’ and modify contracts at will, always to the advantage of [these companies] and to our detriment.

“In short, they make us work more and earn less. Before the pandemic, we had guaranteed working hours: the hours you were connected to the application, even if there were no orders during that time. [But as] demand increases [especially during the pandemic], instead of improving workers’ conditions, [the delivery companies] make them worse: they suspend the guaranteed hours and only pay you for delivered orders.

“That makes us modern slaves, who depend on being connected [24–7] to an application. Distances increase, [workers’ hourly] rates decrease and, in addition, you are tied to the mood of the customer.”

He emphasised how time-sensitive their work is, adding: “If a person does not come down immediately to receive their order, that time is not considered by anyone. It becomes a matter of respect, of consideration for the other person. We are workers, human beings; and some customers, and the owners of these companies, feel entitled to treat us like dogs.”

False self-employment

The abrupt pandemic growth of delivery services keeps these workers in legal limbo. Hernández told me that, to date, none of these companies have been audited in Chile. He knows this because Riders Unidos Ya has two lawsuits in progress against PedidosYa.

The complaints have been filed by individuals since legally the workers are “self-employed” or freelance workers, which means they cannot form a union.

Delivery workers globally face the problem of being off the books as workers, but on the books as those who provide labour for a company. Workers are fighting back by filing individual court cases against these multinational companies.

In Spain last year, Isaac Cuende won a lawsuit against Glovo, another multinational food delivery app company. The Supreme Court used the term “false self-employment” (falsosautónomos), which refers to the practice of not recognising delivery workers as workers who are entitled to labour rights, including the right to form unions.

Delivery workers in Argentina have organised themselves in a wide range of groups such as Agrupación de Trabajadores de Reparto, Glovers Unidos Argentina and Redapps Unidos Argentina. Many of these groups called for an international strike of food delivery workers on April 22 last year.

They were joined by organisations from across Latin America and Spain. In October, these groups held their fourth strike, in which Latin American and Spanish workers were joined by workers from Europe, Asia and North America. Their collective goal is to push against the delivery app employers — to force them to put workers’ safety and interests before profit margins and accept labour standards and labour rights.

Hernández is part of this process. As an active delivery worker and a leader of his organisation, he recognises that it will not be easy. “We workers are seen as disposable,” he tells me. “We always bear the brunt, and the companies always get the impunity.”

[This article was produced by Globetrotter. Taroa Zúñiga Silva is the co-editor with Giordana García Sojo of Venezuela, Vórtice de la Guerra del Siglo XXI (2020). She is a member of the Secretaría de Mujeres Inmigrantes en Chile. She also is a member of the Mecha Cooperativa, a project of the Ejército Comunicacional de Liberación.]

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