Angelica Salgado cried tears of joy when she received her first paycheck from Chilean startup Cornershop in 2017. After two years of unemployment in Santiago, Salgado was given a 30-hour contract to be a “shopper” — one of the hundreds of delivery workers that Cornershop hired to hit supermarket aisles across the city and deliver groceries directly to people’s doors via the app.
“I had a car. I thought, ‘I’m a mom — I know how to find good products at the grocery store, how hard can it be?’” said Salgado.
Cornershop was founded in 2015 by Oskar Hjertonsson, Daniel Undurraga, and Juan Pablo Cuevas in Chile’s capital. The company stood out for formally employing all its workers, from shoppers to corporate managers.
“I felt like an employee,” Salgado said.
But the system that shoppers like Salgado valued has gradually been eroded — a process that accelerated in July 2020 when San Francisco-based tech giant and gig economy expounder, Uber, became Cornershop’s majority shareholder. In July 2021, Uber completed its acquisition of Chile’s first unicorn after buying the remaining 47% of the company for $1.4 billion in shares.
“Cornershop has the heart of a grandma. But Uber is a machine that is coming to destroy everything,” said Salgado.
The move is part of Uber’s ongoing strategy to create a cohesive global convenience platform, integrating the Chilean online grocer with its Uber Eats and rideshare services.
A spokesperson for Uber told Rest of World that Latin America is one of the company’s fastest-growing regions. Uber intends to advance Cornershop’s technology to expand from grocery services to other merchant categories like clothing.
“In this deal, we will strengthen everything that makes us special, while getting access to all of Uber to move faster. ¡Vamos que se puede!” tweeted Hjertonsson, one-third of the Cornershop founding trio, in June 2021 after Uber’s total acquisition was confirmed.
Significant changes have occurred since Uber took over. In August 2020, Uber led negotiations with Chile’s largest retail company, Cencosud, to establish “dark stores” — supermarket branches exclusively for shoppers — to cut queue times and streamline the delivery experience.
At the time of the agreement, Eduardo Donnelly, general director of Uber Eats for Latin America said, “We are very excited about the possibility of Cornershop starting to work with Cencosud… Thanks to our technological integration, users of Uber applications can access their stores and products.”
Yet, while the executives at Uber and Cornershop celebrate the acquisition, shoppers like Salgado are fearful the merger has led to a significant deterioration in their working conditions.
When Salgado started at the company, she loved its welcoming millennial mindset. Even though she worked alone in her car, she befriended colleagues on the company’s WhatsApp groups, which included on-the-road shoppers and their office-based managers who fixed any issues relating to an order. Every month they would meet for work drinks and Cornershop would foot the bill.
Although the contracted shoppers didn’t get the perks that the office-based staff enjoyed — like free massages and tap beer — they had it good compared to independent delivery workers on rival apps such as Rappi and PedidosYa.
All of Cornershop’s shoppers took home a fixed salary every month, plus commissions. They had their expenses covered, paid sick days, pensions plans, and were covered in case of any road accidents.
As formal employees, Chilean law allowed them to form a union, which Salgado has been president of for four years. They had direct access to Cornershop’s CEOs, with whom they discussed ways to improve the app and labor conditions for workers.
In 2017, Salgado and her 230 delivery colleagues had something notoriously absent from the gig economy: workers’ rights.
Then, Uber acquired the app. As recently as March 2020, Salgado had met with Cuevas in person to discuss shopper safety during the pandemic. Cuevas had always been understanding, approachable, and willing to help. But during that meeting, he told her that Uber would play a greater role in decision-making, taking over the company for good — and bringing new changes.
“He told me that Uber does not like unions,” she said. Although the tone was friendly, Salgado said that it felt like a warning.
After 11 years of operation, Uber’s ride-sharing service is now present in more than 10,000 cities in over sixty countries. The mega-company has emerged as the main advocate and pioneer of the gig economy system.
“Uber is so representative of this model that their name is synonymous with it — the Uberfication of the economy,” said Rodrigo Palomo Vélez, dean of the juridical science faculty at the University of Talca.
Although shoppers maintain there has been an undeniable change since Uber’s involvement, the ride-hailing giant did not immediately curtail the cozy workplace environment that Salgado enjoyed in Cornershop’s early days.
Seen through the perspective of cut-throat venture capitalism, Cornershop’s shift in company culture was predictable in terms of sheer survival. Even before Uber got involved, Cornershop was gearing up for expansion, forced to compete with a crop of newcomers like Glovo, Rappi, and an already established rival, PedidosYa.
By 2018, Cornershop stopped contracting shoppers and hired thousands of independent workers. Work drinks with colleagues stopped.
As the delivery force grew, office managers left Whatsapp groups and hid their numbers, meaning shoppers could only communicate with their office-based colleagues through the app’s internal messaging center.
The switch made it easy for Uber to rupture the remaining social liaisons between company headquarters and the workers on the streets, including access to the CEOs, direct communication to the offices, and the negotiation of shoppers’ rights.
“An already impersonal system became even more impersonal,” said Guillermo Castro, an ex-shopper whose account was suddenly blocked last month.
He has tried to find out why Cornershop terminated his services, but the app refuses to share the information. He suspects he was booted for complaining via the messaging center over an abrupt change to his ratings, causing him to lose out on key orders and receive less pay as a result.
Shoppers are ranked on several assessments — the time they spend finding the order, customer ratings, the amount of orders they reject, and the time active on the app. Castro said he had a higher-than-average score in all sections.
“Your ratings change and you don’t know why. They never give you information,” said Castro. “You work in the darkness and you feel impotent.”
Another shopper, Carlos, prefered to remain anonymous in fear that his account would be blocked if the app could identify him. He said Cornershop had become increasingly more demanding towards shoppers since he joined two years ago, around the time Uber transitioned to majority stakeholder.
“Shoppers get punished for everything. When you try to explain to the manager, they don’t listen. If you ask why your rating has dropped, they don’t explain.”
When Carlos started as a freelance shopper in 2019, he could choose where he wanted to work in the city. Yet, over the past year, the app has increasingly forced him to work in parts of Santiago he prefers to avoid. He said safety is an issue for a lot of his colleagues, especially women.
He added that communication with shoppers has grown increasingly fraught. The support staff on the app only use cartoon avatars to identify themselves. He suspects they use copied and pasted replies.
“I’d like to see faces, and talk about my rights like any other worker,” he said. “But if I complain, I could get my account blocked right away.”
Speaking to Rest of World, Uber denied that it has made changes to Cornershop’s operations, stressing that the app has run independently from Uber to date. The statement contrasts with the lived experiences of shoppers like Salgado, Carlos, and Castro.
Uber said that they “remain in close touch” with shoppers, but foreshadowed future changes “in the following months, [as] our teams will begin to find synergies and move towards our integration into the Uber family.” The company did not provide further comment on any changes made to the opaque ranking system that has left shoppers so disgruntled.
In stark contrast to the dignified position that Salgado valued when she first joined the company, Uber’s spokesperson told Rest of World that shoppers are “independent contractors who come to Cornershop by Uber for the opportunity to earn on their terms.”
Palomo Veléz, the academic at the University of Talca, said that Cornershop’s adherence to the gig economy model is not necessarily Uber’s, but a result of scaling up to survive in a crowded marketplace: “Cornershop’s original purpose was to be local and small, not this mega-company we see today.”
While there have been political discussions over the inadequate workers’ rights for the large and growing workforce dependent on these apps, workers fear that Chile’s conservative government is merely paying lip service to regulation demands. The government is currently pushing a bill that supports gig work platforms as “an urgent matter.”
While the bill promises greater security regarding accidents and sickness, Salgado and her union peers are fiercely against the proposal, as it will allow apps to continue their reliance on independent workers. The scenario is not dissimilar to the notorious Proposition 22 ballot initiative in California supported by companies like Lyft and Uber, which promised gig economy workers benefits and protections that never materialized. In August, Proposition 22 was deemed “unconstitutional” by a California judge, reigniting the long-fought struggle for workers’ rights in the state.
An Uber spokesperson said that the government-backed bill in Chile “recognizes flexibility and autonomy of those who generate earnings using technology,” while Salgado bluntly dismisses the proposal as “a monster.”
However, the Cornershop union’s secret weapon may be the 155-person constituent assembly, largely composed of progressive, left-wing members. They are currently drafting a new constitution for Chile due next year.
Palomo Veléz predicts that the new constitution, designed to strengthen Chile’s meager social security rights combined with stricter regulation laws, will force Uber to adapt.
It is a fight that Salgado is willing to see until the end — she doesn’t want her children to grow up and work under gig economy conditions.
“If your work doesn’t cover your food, heating or pensions, something is wrong,” she said. “It’s an insane cycle, [one] of absolute abandonment of people with few other employment opportunities.