Colombia's Rappi app draws ire of Venezuelan migrant couriers
Delivery workers for Rappi and other delivery apps protest as part of a strike to demand better wages and working conditions, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Bogota, Colombia August 15, 2020. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
What’s the context?
Riders' complaints about low pay and precarious conditions have prompted a government probe into the Latin American delivery giant
- Labor Ministry probes Rappi delivery app
- Couriers demand better pay and conditions
- Case highlights digital sector regulatory gaps
BOGOTA - Venezuelan migrant Jhonniell Colina crisscrosses the gridlocked streets of Bogota on his motorbike for 12 hours a day to deliver food for Colombia's Rappi app, but he still barely earns enough to live on.
Colina, who has been delivering take-away meals and groceries for Rappi in the Colombian capital for the past four years, said he made about $5 per day for doing roughly 13 deliveries.
"I work full-time and long hours. Many of us don't earn the monthly minimum wage," said Colina, who, like many of his Venezuelan co-workers, relies on the Rappi work as his sole source of income.
But as Colombia grapples with its highest inflation in two decades, Rappi couriers - known locally as Rappitenderos - have demanded better pay and conditions by filing two complaints against the company with the country's Labor Ministry.
"We're claiming our rights ... we want fair pay," said Colina, who is vice president of the Union of Digital Platform Workers (UNIDAPP), which represents about 1,200 mobile app workers, including Rappitenderos.
Following the election of Colombia's first leftist president earlier this year, the Labor Ministry has launched an investigation into the labor rights complaints filed jointly by the UNIDAPP and the Central Union of Workers (CUT).
Labor Minister Gloria Ines Ramírez, a former trade unionist, told Context the probe would look into whether Rappi "is infringing health and safety at work rules, and if its refusal to negotiate with the union violates rules on the rights of association and collective bargaining".
If labor laws have been violated, the company could be fined up to $1 million, Ramírez said.
Bogota-based Rappi, which operates in nine Latin American countries, declined to comment on the union complaints and said it had not received official notification of the ministry's investigation.
The probe comes as Colombian lawmakers consider two bills that seek to regulate digital work platforms and better protect app workers such as delivery riders, and labor experts said it could mark the start of efforts to improve labor conditions.
"There is political interest ... it's the first time it's been publicly admitted by the Labor Ministry that they want to proceed with an investigation into Rappi," said Derly Sanchez, a sociology professor at Colombia's Rosario University who researches the gig economy.
"It opens up the conversation about how to regulate conditions for digital workers and labor rights," she added.
Governments around the world are grappling with how to reform labor regulations to respond to the boom in delivery apps in recent years.
Founded in 2015 by three Colombian entrepreneurs, Rappi is regarded as a startup success story, growing to become a company worth billions of dollars and with some 150,000 active contractors, of which about 55,000 work in Colombia.
In 2019, Rappi received $1 billion in investment from Japan's SoftBank, and last August the company raised a little over $500 million in a funding round, taking its value to $5.25 billion.
In Colombia, Rappitenderos are categorized as self-employed independent contractors and often called "collaborators", meaning an employment relationship does not exist with the app company.
An absence of laws regulating digital platforms and app workers in the Andean nation means Rappi and other online companies such as ride-hailing apps operate in a regulatory no man's land that leaves contractors in legal limbo, critics say.
Rappi couriers are not covered by social security measures like health insurance contributions or the right to collective bargaining, which are stated as universal rights in conventions of the United Nations' International Labor Organization (ILO) that Colombia has signed.
"We want it to be recognized that an employment relationship exists between Rappi and us. We're not independent from the company. Platform workers have a boss, it's the algorithm," said Colina.
"We're connected all day and we have to reserve slots to work. We sign a contract with terms and conditions which you have to accept to connect. It's the company that pays the workers. There's an employment relationship, but they deny it."
Rappi Chief Executive and co-founder Simón Borrero has said Rappitenderos are not full-time users of the platform, but instead connect on average 14 hours a week as a way to earn extra income.
Workers in several places around the world have fought for similar recognition of their employee status, with some winning concessions from app companies.
According to the second complaint, a 24-page document filed in March, the unions accuse Rappi of violating labor and health laws and failing to provide "dignified and fair" working conditions.
The filing, seen by Context, says Rappi payments are not fairly calculated according to the distance traveled by couriers and challenges the company's data protection policy and tip system that union members say is not transparent or clear.
Another UNIDAPP leader and a Rappi bicycle courier in Ecuador, Carolina Hevia, said more needs to be done to address the lack of regulation on digital platforms in order to protect worker rights.
"(Rappi) take advantage of this to ... exploit and make conditions precarious for those people most in need," said Hevia, a Venezuelan migrant who has lived in Colombia and Ecuador since fleeing economic turmoil in her homeland.
Rappi couriers also accuse the company of unfairly blocking their accounts and say a points system sets impossible targets for deliveries.
Unions hope the government probe will lead to negotiations between workers and Rappi executives to address such issues after previous initiatives had "fallen on deaf ears," Colina said.
During the previous government, officials from the Labor Ministry and other government agencies met Rappi executives to discuss ways to improve working conditions in 2019, but frustrated by a lack of change, Rappitenderos have since staged several one-day strikes in Colombia.
One of the major challenges governments face as they try to regulate the delivery app sector is how to include drivers and couriers in social security coverage.
In Mexico, Labor Minister Luisa Alcalde said in September the government was working on a new law that would guarantee gig workers the right to be recognized as employees, meaning they could access social security benefits.
The bill, which has not yet been presented before Congress, could include a list of proposals drawn up by app delivery worker organizations and Rappi, along with ride-hailing platforms DiDi and Uber, after months of negotiations.
A key point of debate is whether companies should recognize gig workers as employees rather than "partners".
Benefits for app workers would include access to social security, healthcare services in the event of road accidents, and security protocols to prevent gender-based violence.
In Colombia, for Rappitenderos carrying the ubiquitous orange Rappi delivery bags that have become part of the urban landscape, union members hope the Labor Ministry probe could mark a turning-point in their fight for similar benefits.
"What we needed was political will, and we have that now," Colina said.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Additional reporting by Diana Baptista in Mexico City; Editing by Helen Popper)
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