In Brazil, food delivery is growing 30 to 40 percent each year and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, according to Harvard Business School. But BBC News reports that a lack of recognition, protections, and bargaining power makes these delivery workers some of the most vulnerable to food insecurity.
A Brazilian nongovernmental organization (NGO) finds that nearly 60 percent of the population is suffering from food insecurity. Those in food delivery are particularly hard-hit, with workers responsible for the costs of vehicles and gas on top of grocery bills, explains Gonzalo Martinez, the Brazil Country Program Director for the Solidarity Center.
The average worker in Brazil has representation through labor unions, says Martinez. But this is not the case for gig economy workers. Mainstream labor laws in Brazil do not cover gig workers, making bonuses and benefits like healthcare, meals, and transportation unavailable to them.
According to Martinez, food delivery companies argue that workers are not employees and are instead micro-entrepreneurs or individual contractors. “They really do verbal gymnastics to get around the fact that these are people who are putting on backpacks with their company logos and going out on the streets delivering food for them, sometimes for eight, 10, or 12 hours a day,” he tells Food Tank.
Without official employment status from app companies, gig workers don’t have a place at the bargaining table like other employees. “Generally speaking, they have fewer avenues for advocacy than the average worker,” Martinez says. “By far, the holy grail of policy advocacy in this space is for workers to be formally recognized as employees in the sector.”
To meet consumer and company demands, workers are risking their lives. In Brazil, traffic accidents are the second leading external cause of death, according to one study from the School of Medicine of Bahia. In the study, motorcycling was the occupation of half of victims of motorcycle accidents and approximately 50 percent of the study’s participants did not meet the requirements for a driver license. Gilberto (Gil) Almeida dos Santos, President of advocacy organization SindimotoSP, attributes many delivery workers’ traffic deaths to app companies hiring young, inexperienced workers on the spot.
iFood is one of Brazil’s largest online food delivery platforms involving 200,000 active couriers. It was the only app providing free accident insurance before January 2022, when a Brazilian law passed to entitle all app-based delivery workers to accident insurance.
SindimotoSP recently attended an event to celebrate another significant step in workers’ safety. In October, São Paolo authorized the use of blue studs as traffic devices to improve visualization of lanes designated for motorcyclists. Martinez says these lanes are proven to reduce injuries and deaths of delivery workers.
While accident insurance and traffic devices are certainly accomplishments in worker safety, delivery workers are still without a bargaining structure.
Instead, they look to collective action. “Many workers have come out to grassroots mobilizations that have taken place over the years,” says Martinez. Workers can coordinate logging out of the delivery app and walking off the job, which can force negotiations with companies for better working conditions.
But it’s not an easy process. “It’s a lot of legwork to get even just a fraction of the workers to log off,” Martinez tells Food Tank. He explains that most gig workers cannot afford to stall work for any extended period of time.
And even if enough workers participate in the walk-out, employers often leverage their power to avoid change. “Even when [workers] do get a mass stoppage, companies usually get to either ignore them for a little bit and then things go back to normal, or they make very, very marginal concessions and then watch the workers get right back to work under essentially the same conditions,” Martinez tells Food Tank.
Consumers can make informed purchases by educating themselves about the gig economy. Likely, they will have to do a little more digging, Martinez tells Food Tank. Most of what consumers pay for their food is not going to the restaurant they order from or to the worker who delivers it to their door. “It’s actually going to the app itself,” Martinez says. And depending on the app, the tips that consumers leave workers don’t fully make it to their pockets, if at all.
“We know that this is a social problem and to solve it we need the participation of entities, companies, society, and governments. Only in this way will we be able to offer decent conditions of safety, work, and mobility to these motorcyclists,” Almeida dos Santos says.
“They’re really asking to have the same rights that workers have in many other sectors of the economy,” says Martinez.
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Photo courtesy of Szymon Fischer, Unsplash