The strikes in Brazil reveal the power of workers’ struggles and the importance of fair work on digital platforms
By Rafael Grohmann, Rodrigo Carelli, Daniel Abs, Julice Salvagni, Kelle Howson, Funda Ustek-Spilda and Mark Graham
In July, Brazil experienced two historic strikes by food delivery riders who work for digital platforms. Brazil has the world’s fifth largest population of internet users, and for a day, many of them directed their attention to the grievances of millions of the country’s gig workers. The strikers’ demands included an increase in pay, ending the processes that lead to unfair blocks and dismissals on the platform, as well as scoring systems, and provision of personal protective equipment. Workers appealed to consumers to show solidarity by not ordering anything through their apps. It is not the first time Brazilian food delivery riders have mobilised for better conditions, but the July 1 strike was the first ever country-wide strike in the sector.
In March and April this year, the number of food orders through platforms increased by 77 percent in Brazil. However, research revealed that food delivery couriers are working harder and earning less than they used to. For instance, food delivery riders in particular have seen a rise in demand for their services as people isolated at home. The workers also say that platforms have not offered protection, even though on-demand workers continued to face heightened risks during the pandemic. In the absence of any kind of effective protection or compensation, workers have experienced an increased sense of helplessness and vulnerability.
The pandemic may have accelerated capital-driven processes that were already underway – such as platformization of labour, and erosion of labour protections – but it has also helped workers on digital platforms to organise. These workers are now more visible in society and able to circulate their struggles through social media. Their work is also increasingly recognised as essential to the pandemic response, in keeping others in social isolation.
While technology is rapidly transforming the way we work, we can see the ways in which it has worked both against, and for workers in their struggle. For instance, the design of platforms helps intensify the atomisation and isolation of workers from other workers. However, also we cannot deny the role of digital technologies in the mobilisation and organisation of workers which ultimately led to the strikes in Brazil. Social media platforms, such as WhatsApp, have allowed this to happen organically on a national scale through bottom-up organising. This emphasises the possibilities for a fairer future of digital work; in which social media platforms can facilitate worker empowerment.
During the strikes, the “Anti-Fascist Couriers” movement, led by Paulo Galo rose to prominence through Twitter and in legacy media. Quotes like “we are not entrepreneurs” and “you are not middle class, you are working class” dominated the public debate before, during and after the strike. However, these messages previously had not reached the same level of exposure outside Twitter, in other spaces where workers organised. In WhatsApp groups and in formal spaces of representation, there is a diversity of political and organisational points of view. There are also disagreements and disputes between institutions. Among workers’ organisations, there is one union that advocates that workers be hired as employees and there is an association that wants couriers to remain self-employed. However, these disagreements were overcome to identify the common demands for the strike.
Days before the first strike, the Brazilian Labour Prosecution Office pressured companies through class-action lawsuits, and asked them to provide personal protective equipment and guarantee income for sick workers. These efforts were successful in initial hearings, but were eventually blocked by the Labour Justice court. Despite these challenges, the states of São Paulo and Pernambuco were able to establish rules to protect workers during the pandemic. In addition, the lawsuits provided a catalyst for the organisation of riders, and a set of demands for the strike.
The claims of the second strike were the same. However since the initial action, workers have deepened and expanded collective efforts, and have begun to imagine alternatives to the status quo. Anti-Fascist Couriers, is building a cooperative platform, despatronados (meaning ‘without boss’), already in beta version.
The situation in Brazil, though acute, is not unique, and conforms with what the Fairwork project has been observing around the world. Gig workers in São Paulo, London, Santiago, New Delhi and Johannesburg have a lot in common. But the particular history of slavery and profound social inequality in Brazil normalises precarious working conditions here. Brazilians have worked in insecure jobs, as couriers, cleaners and drivers, for a long time before the advent of digital labour platforms. However, recent years have witnessed the erosion of public provision of social security, education, health, culture and labour rights in Brazil. President Jair Bolsonaro has made his position clear, that “workers will have to choose between more rights or more jobs.”
Although the Brazilian government offered some financial assistance to workers during the pandemic, a 3-month payment around 100 dolares, it was insufficient and poorly managed, ultimately denying workers the ability to protect themselves and their families from the pandemic.
Platform enterprises offer flexible working hours as a deceptively liberating alternative to 8-hour standard employment contracts. In reality, gig workers are forced by low payment levels to work well beyond the maximum hours allowed by Brazilian labour law in order to survive. The failure to classify workers as employees renders them completely without protection, meaning they have no option but to make themselves vulnerable to exposure to Covid-19 to make ends meet.
During the strikes, we spoke to many food delivery riders, who affirmed the central role of researchers in producing data and resources to support their struggles. Platform enterprises are well-known for commissioning research that shows positive outcomes for workers. The day before the first strike, the “public policy leader” of a platform, iFood, assured the workers and the government that the company was at their disposal, as “co-responsible and co-creators of the new order”.
We, as researchers of the Fairwork project, invite platforms to come to the table and engage in good faith dialogue with us for improving the conditions for workers. This, we think, is essential for bringing about a fairer digital economy. The “new normal” will not be truly new, until there is decent work on digital platforms. A fairer future of digital work is possible.