Pandemic in Brazil: app delivery laborers report worsening working conditions

Workers claim that demands put forth during 2020’s unprecedented strike have not been met and rates are even lower

April 13, 2021 by Brasil de Fato
App delivery workers' strike in Brazil. Photo: Petro Stropasolas / Brasil de Fato

Overworked, exploited and exposed to COVID-19, app delivery workers, known as ‘motoboys’ since the majority work on motorcycles, face even more precarious working conditions than during the first wave of the pandemic. The unprecedented strike that occurred in the sector in June of 2020, did not change the modus operandi of the companies they work for.

“We had the strike and they didn’t give in to anything. The rates are getting worse and worse. It’s worse than it already was. Only those who have no other option remain. Gasoline prices increase, but rates for fares do not,” criticizes Simões*, who delivers in the city of Niterói, in the state of Rio de Janeiro and has been a motoboy for over 15 years.

In the midst of a socioeconomic crisis and unemployment rates never witnessed before, the number of delivery people working on these platforms has increased considerably in Brazil, consolidating informal labor as the only alternative for survival.

There is no official data on how many delivery personnel are registered with these applications. The ifood app alone has 160,000 active workers on its platform, according to information sent to Brasil de Fato by the company, one of the biggest in the industry.

The large presence of couriers on the streets waiting for a call and the consequent decrease in available orders, as there is more manpower available, is clear for those who walk city streets on a daily basis.

53-year-old Altemício Nascimento, also participated in last year’s mobilizations and says that the companies did not engage in a dialogue with the couriers.

“They never respond, they don’t improve rates, and they fill the platform with people during the purple phase [phase of the COVID lockdown with most severe restrictive measures]. You walk down the street and see 10, 20, 30 motoboys standing around waiting for a job. It is difficult to work,” reports the worker, who also disapproves of the amount passed on to the couriers for each kilometer traveled.

A higher base fee and standardized payment for mileage were the main demands brought forth by the movement known as #BrequedosApps, which have still not been met.

“They lowered fares even more. We are working at an average of R $ 0.85 per km, which is very little. Gasoline is almost R $ 6.00 a liter. We are unable to do a 13 km run for R $ 10.00. There is no such thing. They have not adjusted rates since the platform first launched. It’s all on our backs … lunch, gasoline,” says Nascimento.

In addition to precarious remuneration, delivery personnel point out that arbitrary account suspensions continue to happen, and that personal protective equipment for COVID-19 is scarcely given by the platforms.

Infected and helpless

After the strike’s huge repercussion, companies came forth to assure the public that they would implement protective measures for delivery personnel, including funds to help those who became infected with COVID-19.

However, in December of last year, Nascimento confirmed what he already imagined: things are not as advertised. Routinely on the streets making deliveries for the apps Loggi, UberEats, Rappi and Lala Move, the delivery man began to show all the symptoms of COVID-19.

“It was very weird. I couldnt taste anything. I had pains all over my body. Even after I healed from COVID, I still have very bad back pain. Sometimes I can’t even walk properly. I still have a bad taste of chlorine in my mouth,” says the delivery man.

When looking for health services after testing positive for the virus, he stayed three days at the Campo Limpo Municipal Hospital, in the city of São Paulo. With the hospital at capacity, he was soon sent home, where he stayed in isolation. Later, he sought medical assistance through private insurance.

With proof that he had been contaminated, he sought help from the app companies, but did not receive the response he expected.

“I did the PCR test, sent it to Rappi and almost a month later they gave me R $ 150.00. I sent them the medical report, everything was perfect. None of them gave me any help. Only Rappi gave me this amount and I had already spent a lot of my own money,” laments Nascimento.

Brasil de Fato reached out to the delivery platforms to get more details on how many workers have been infected so far and how they had been helped.

Rappi chose not to comment on Nascimento’s case specifically, as well as not respond to questions about the numbers of workers who have been infected, how this monitoring was being carried out, nor the amount spent on aid to delivery personnel.

The company merely stated that in order to receive any assistance, the delivery person must present a medical examination and / or a positive test for COVID-19. “With the confirmation, they will receive benefits for a period of 15 days, until the period of isolation is concluded, as is the current medical recommendation,” says the press release.

On the other hand, iFood claims that it has already allocated around R $ 100 million to protective and support initiatives for delivery persons, such as the distribution of more than 3 million personal protection items and a monthly allowance of R $ 30.00 so these materials can be purchased by those who cannot retrieve the kits available at service centers.

Two funds were created specifically for sick workers and members of high risk groups. According to the company, all couriers who work on the platform can request the aid and the funds’ remuneration corresponds to the courier’s average earnings over the last 3 months.

However, iFood did not answer how many of its registered motoboys had accessed the aid, how many possible deaths were recorded among employees, nor how this monitoring is done.

Regarding remuneration, iFood states that the rates paid for delivery routes “take into account factors such as, for example, the withdrawal of the order at the restaurant, the distance traveled, delivery to the customer, the city, the day of the week and the mode of transportation utilized.”

Loggi, for its part, chose not to answer the questions sent by Brasil de Fato and UberEats did not respond at all.

Even though official positions point to the existence of a support structure, Simões counter-argues that the reality experienced by couriers is different. With no options, he faces the constant fear of infection crossing the Rio de Janeiro-Niterói bridge every day.

The goal of leaving home earlier, even while spending more fuel, is to try to earn half of what you used to receive.

“It discourages people. One suffers an accident, another gets sick and can’t get help, the number of deliveries started to decrease… If I don’t go out on the street, I will go hungry. I have no other means, I have no income, I have no money in my account. How will I pay my rent? I have three children, a wife. If I don’t work, it’s over. Unfortunately, we have to subject ourselves to contamination.”

Urgent measures

In an interview with Brasil de Fato, jurist Jorge Luiz Souto Maior, a judge at the Regional Labor Court of the 15th Region, and professor of labor law at the Law Faculty of the University of São Paulo (USP), assesses that the formalization of labor relations for app drivers and delivery people should be a top government priority.

“They are people who are putting their lives at risk, earning very little, working intensely, within a logic that is increasingly precarious and competitive among themselves. Brazilian society is facing chaos. We will start to solve our problems by formalizing these people’s work,” he says, defending limitations on working hours, the right to days off and paid vacations.

The judge considers that the narrative presented by these companies – that delivery workers work independently and manage their own time – is used to sell precariousness as “labor freedom,” and masks shifts and working conditions akin to slavery.

“The freedom to sell your labor for 18 hour shifts is not freedom. It’s slavery. It is just a narrative of freedom,” he emphasizes.

For Carlos Rasta, who does bicycle deliveries in Rio de Janeiro, what platforms offer to couriers in Brazil is far from ideal.

“Real protection comes when all app companies are fully regulated in that country,” defends the member of the Anti-fascist Couriers group.

Rasta believes that the first challenge to strengthen class mobilization, is to convince the majority of couriers that specific labor legislation for the segment is a legitimate demand.

“The second challenge is to convince the State that this market needs to be more socially responsible with delivery personnel. Something that doesn’t happen. They spend millions on advertising to lie to the public,” he criticizes.

As it is a broad movement, which brings together different profiles, and in the absence of a consolidated representative entity, motoboys face internal disagreements regarding the agendas they defend. For example, formalizing employment ties, doesn’t have unanimous support.

Even so, the unprecedented unification of the sector must continue in the face of the precariousness that affects everyone, as projected by Simões: “We are together in this activity. As much as ideas are different, the wound is universal. The motoboys are all hurting.”

* Source declined to be identified for fear of retaliation.

Edited, translated and published by Brasil de Fato.

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