For a brief moment in July and August 2020, it seemed like app-based delivery platforms might have finally met their match in Latin America. On July 1, drivers took to the streets in Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico, and Chile, demanding support from the venture-backed tech companies that employ them. Their grievances had been building for years, but the exhaustion caused by the coronavirus pandemic tipped them over the edge
Drivers working for local scale-ups, like Colombia’s Rappi and Uruguay’s PedidosYa, and global companies, like Uber Eats and DiDi Food, came out together, united by their shared grievances, forming a movement that mirrored the cross-border scale of the delivery platforms themselves.
But while drivers across the continent and across platforms share similar issues with their respective companies, the differences in the legal and political environments where they operate mean that their fights are essentially local.
After the exuberant display of cross-border collaboration, the individual movements have again fragmented, each focusing on their own, unique challenges. The experiences of workers in Colombia and Argentina show the limits of international solidarity in the face of inflexible laws and political opposition to labor organization.
In the middle of 2019, Rappi announced it would construct a handful of pit stops in Colombia’s major cities. It was a welcome surprise to thousands of tenderos who would spend most of their time on the streets. Often set up in parking lots, the pit stops sported Rappi’s bright orange branding and included small tables and bike racks.
Though the spaces were designed for drivers, the company maintained tight control over their use; only on-duty drivers could use the pit stops, and sometimes only those wearing the company’s paraphernalia would be allowed to enter.
Still, they were useful to the drivers. “Each tendero would take advantage of it to charge their phones during the low-demand hours. After around midday, you’d come to heat up food, eat lunch, charge your phone, use the bathroom,” Jhonniel Colina, a 31-year-old Venezuelan migrant and Rappi driver, told Rest of World.
But then, coronavirus swept through Latin America, and food deliveries shot up as restaurants went dark and governments issued stay-at-home orders. Weeks into the pandemic, Rappi shut down one of the largest pit stops in Bogotá. Without warning, drivers found that their rest stop had been transformed into a center for “dark kitchens” — another place from which they might need to pick up orders for delivery.
Rappi drivers often sit scattered around Bogotá, waiting for orders in strategic zones near restaurants. They sit on curbsides and next to malls.
They used to ask Rappi for help when they ran into trouble, but the app almost always put them in contact with a robot. Colina said they have to look out for one another instead.
“We take care of each other in our WhatsApp groups. Whatever problem we write about: If someone gets in an accident … we’re there. If something happens with an order, and you don’t know what to do, you ask the group, because if [Rappi] makes you wait for support, you’re going to have to wait your entire day.”
Colina and fellow tendera for Rappi and Venezuelan migrant Carolina Heiva said they always hoped that these small instances of solidarity could become a movement and that the energy of the summer’s continent-wide protests would offer the momentum necessary to rally drivers behind the union effort.
Together with a group of other workers across Colombia, they started Union of Delivery App Workers (Unidapp), a union for platform workers that they hoped could channel the momentum building among the drivers into a formal labor syndicate.
But Colombia can be a dangerous place to be a union organizer. In the last five years, it’s been estimated that hundreds of human rights organizers, social activists, and labor leaders have been murdered.
“We have people, important people in the government, that speak out saying that unions are not good or they are communist or they’ve come to destroy the economy of Colombia,” Marcio Monzane, regional secretary for UNI Global Union, a global union federation.
Colombian union leaders with whom UNI has worked have faced death threats for organizing, says Monzane. But the toll for organizing can take many forms.
In March, after being found gathered in a group on the street, Colina found himself blocked from accepting orders on Rappi. While he can’t be sure whether or not it was retribution from the company, moves like this have fed fears among the drivers in Colombia that protesting could have real consequences.
Heiva said that shortly after she began organizing Unidapp, she noticed she was being followed by men dressed like security guards. Other times, she said, the men wore badges and face scarves featuring the Rappi logo. She moved houses three times out of fear. In the third, someone broke in and stole the phone she would use to organize, and nothing else.
“You can’t sleep at your house when they’re pursuing you,” Heiva said. “You wake up, and they’re there. You go to buy something, and they’re there. They follow you everywhere you go. And you don’t know if it’s harassment, if they’re just trying to intimidate you or if they’re following you, watching your every step to eventually kill you.”
She asked the Colombian government for a security detail, a common precaution afforded to human rights activists under threat. The government rejected her request in a letter reviewed by Rest of World. Rappi declined to comment when asked about Heiva’s experiences.
After months of threats, Heiva fled to Ecuador, fearful for her safety.
In Argentina, meanwhile, Rappi and its competitors — Uber Eats and Pedidos Ya — provided no formal pit stops. If drivers wanted to take a break between orders, they might congregate in parks or street corners, but these instances were fleeting, punctuating hectic days filled with deliveries.
But the death of a 19-year-old delivery driver in the suburbs of Buenos Aires pushed the riders over the edge. They began staging protests and took to the streets in late April 2020. In their wake, something new began to emerge: solidarity stops.
These worker-run pop-up stops were created to allow drivers to congregate, rest, and bond. The time and location of the solidarity stops would be advertised ahead of time on Facebook. To allow the organizers to meet more drivers and because the groups do not have access to a permanent space, the solidarity stops are set up in a different place each time.
Nicolás Doudtchitzky had been working as a delivery driver for only a few months when he helped organize the first gathering on July 23, 2020. They set it up at Plaza Serrano, near the fashionable bars and restaurants that populate Buenos Aires’ Palermo neighborhood.
By September 2020, the country’s unemployment rate had reached 13.7% — the country’s highest in 16 years. Like many, Doudtchitzky had lost his job as a customer service representative. He was also an active member of a leftist political party called Nuevo MAS, whose members helped organize the stops. It was in those informal, street corner gatherings that the opportunity of political mobilization dawned on the organizers. The idea for a union emerged four days after the first solidarity stop was started — it would be called Sitrarepa.
Sitrarepa was the fourth attempt at a delivery worker’s union in a country where unions have historically been both widespread and strong.
“Here in Argentina, my grandfather was unionized, my father was unionized, my brothers are unionized, and I’m unionized,” said Ruben Cortina, spokesperson for the Argentine Federation of Commerce and Service Workers, a network of unions that works with some of the smaller drivers’ syndicates, though not Sitrarepa. “That doesn’t happen everywhere. So it’s a culture we have here.”
Doudtchitzky was elected Sitrarepa’s secretary general and began the process of seeking legal recognition for the union from the Ministry of Labor. The organizers used the informal pit stops to recruit members, and, by June 2021, the group had registered 600 riders as part of the potential organization.
On a chilly night in July, Doudtchitzky and other members of Nuevo MAS stood ready in the Caballito neighborhood of Buenos Aires to help interested drivers sign forms expressing their intent to unionize. Despite the rain — the organizers had not set up a tent or shelter — they registered delivery workers armed only with a small table and a plotter.
“I like the idea of being recognized at a union and being covered in case of, for example, getting Covid, having an accident, or being punished in the app’s ranking system,” said 25-year-old Rappi driver Alejandro Ramos, who stopped by that evening. “I work for Rappi because I need to pay for my degree. I’m studying to become a physical education professor, and this is the only job I could find.”
But while the environment for unionizing might be relatively friendly in Argentina, the country’s antiquated laws are not. In order to create a formal delivery union, the companies they work for will have to acknowledge that they are in employment relationships, according to Julieta Haidar, a researcher and professor of labor relations at the University of Buenos Aires.
“No matter how much [the workers] submit forms, or canvas the board of directors and affiliates, they will not be recognized,” said Haidar. “It’s not that the government doesn’t want workers to be able to unionize, it’s that whoever is going to study the file [will say], ‘I cannot create a union where there is no employment relationship.’”
Cortina says that without a legislative change to update Argentina’s laws, it is likely any union seeking to represent platform-based workers will face this same issue.
There are also political considerations. Unbeknownst to many of the drivers, Doudtchitzky is also Nuevo MAS’ treasurer, further entangling the union effort with MAS’ political activities.
Even if the Ministry of Labor could approve a union, Haidar says it likely wouldn’t. The current government is wary of the initiative’s close ties with an opposing political party. While the workers support unionization, there remains the question of how much of the effort is for the riders and how much is to increase the visibility of Nuevo MAS.
“When I met the union, I did not know they were involved with Nuevo MAS. I did not even know Nuevo MAS,” said Erick Herrera, a 38-year-old driver. “I could imagine that they had a connection with some political party, but I never knew which one. I don’t see this as something wrong, as long as they work for the riders like us, who make a living out of this job.”
Doudtchitzky maintains that the organizers have been open with riders about their political affiliations and that Sitrarepa is distinct from Nuevo MAS. Even though, as part of the unionization effort, the youth wing of Nuevo MAS, Jóvenes Trabajadores Precarizados (JTP), has been recruited to register the deaths of drivers killed in accidents during the pandemic.
A year on from their coordinated protests, the union movements in Colombia and Argentina have both stalled.
In Colombia, Unidapp was never able to get off the ground, after its organizing efforts were stymied by a distrustful government and suspected company union busting by Rappi.
As a result, Unidapp voices have been silenced, and the word has failed to get out. Only 2,000 of the approximately 40,000 drivers in the country have joined the effort. Many tenderos are quick to say that they’d welcome a group defending their rights as workers, but when asked about Unidapp, they either roll their eyes or ask: “What union?”
Daniel Musica, a 33-year-old Venezuelan migrant who has been working at Rappi for three years, does know about Unidapp, but he was unconvinced by its organizers’ efforts. He sat with a group of other delivery workers on plastic trash cans next to an outdoor bathroom right where a former pit stop used to be. It was the only area that had shelter from Bogotá’s intermittent rain and sun. The pay and the working conditions have gradually gotten worse, Musica complained, but he thought Unidapp “lacked seriousness.”
“They haven’t done anything. Anything.”
Heiva disagrees. She says it’s up to the workers to join Unidapp in the fight. Some people, she said, want everything given to them and “don’t even want to lift a finger.”