Venezuela migrants propel billion-dollar delivery app

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By MANUEL RUEDA | AP
ID: 
1564375621667633700
Mon, 2019-07-29 04:01

BOGOTA, Colombia: It’s six in the morning and Samuel Romero is
already pulling his bicycle out of a small garage.
The 21-year-old Venezuelan migrant turns on his phone and logs on
to Rappi, an app through which freelance cyclists get paid to make
deliveries around Bogota, a traffic-clogged city of 8 million. He
checks his brakes and rides into the chilly streets. It’s the
beginning of a 15-hour workday, in which Romero is hoping he can
make around $15 — the equivalent of Venezuela’s monthly minimum
wage but barely enough to get by in costlier Colombia.
“I am grateful to have some work” says Romero, who arrived in
Colombia last year. “But you really have to devote tons of time
to this to make any decent money.”
Around the world, immigrants are flocking to digital platforms like
Uber, Doordash or Rappi for freelance work, because they offer a
quick chance to earn cash in places where newcomers struggle to
find regular jobs.
But the gig economy can also be perilous for migrants, who end up
working long hours in occupations that provide modest pay, no
benefits and few opportunities for career advancement.
In Colombia, which has recently taken in more than 1.3 million
Venezuelans fleeing economic hardship, thousands of immigrants like
Romero are working on the Rappi platform, mostly delivering small
packages to customers who can log into the app to order anything
from Chinese takeaway to a box of diapers from the supermarket.
The app has expanded into eight Latin American countries since it
was founded four years ago by a group of young Colombian
entrepreneurs, and raised more than $1 billion from venture
capitalists, becoming a showpiece for the country’s up and coming
tech industry.
But Rappi — like similar companies — has also come under
criticism for its modern-day labor practices, which reflect some of
the shortcomings of the gig economy.
“This company grew so fast that it forgot about our welfare”
said Lina Hernandez, a cyclist who works for Rappi in Bogota,
making less than $15 during 12-hour workdays. She recently
participated in a protest in front of Rappi’s headquarters, where
some couriers set fire to their orange-colored company backpacks to
express their anger over the platform’s working conditions.
Rappi pays cyclists in Colombia anywhere from 60 cents to three
dollars per delivery, depending on the distance traveled and the
time of day in which an order is taken. The couriers are not
considered employees and work on a freelance basis, logging into
the platform at their convenience.
Company representatives estimate that couriers can make $2.30 to
$2.90 per hour during peak times when demand is highest. That’s
twice as much as workers on Colombia’s minimum wage make per
hour. The company says that its platform is providing work
opportunities to more than 18,000 couriers across Latin
America.
“This is a platform that allows people to generate additional
income, in a flexible manner,” said Alejandro Galvis, Rappi’s
chief of staff. “The beauty of this is that through technology we
connect two people” enabling cyclists with spare time to serve
customers without time to do their own shopping, he explains.
But cyclists in Colombia complain that payments are falling as more
freelancers join the platform and compete for each delivery,
forcing them to work longer hours to make similar or even smaller
amounts of money.
“This was incredible the first three months,” Romero said
during a long break in midafternoon, when the app wasn’t sending
him any requests for deliveries. He said that when he joined Rappi
in February, he was making almost $22 each day but that his average
daily amount had now dropped to about $15.
Rappi cyclists also lack benefits that are mandatory for
minimum-wage employees, such as health insurance or sick leave.
Couriers must also pay for the maintenance of their bikes, and
purchase from Rappi an orange backpack that is required to work on
the platform.
Company representatives say the couriers are not its employees but
“entrepreneurs” who work on their own schedule and use the
Rappi app to find customers willing to pay for deliveries. They say
the app does not keep any of the money paid for deliveries. Instead
it charges retailers a fee for sales made through Rappi.
But many of the Rappi cyclists approached by The Associated Press
said they were working on the app for most of the day because they
have few other employment options. Critics of the app say a large
number of couriers have basically become full-time workers.
Lawmakers in Colombia and Argentina are considering regulations to
boost protection for the workers.
“Just because these are tech companies, they cannot ignore years
of progress in ensuring workers’ rights,” said Mario Valencia,
an economist who directs the Center for Labor Studies, a
left-leaning Bogota think tank.
But as politicians debate ways to regulate technology apps, a
steady supply of migrants, as well as local workers, keeps them
running.
Luis Tarre, 60, said he began to make deliveries for Rappi earlier
this year because the app does not force him to comply with a
demanding schedule.
Tarre ran his own construction company in his home state of
Portuguesa in Venezuela. But after business took a sharp downturn,
he moved to Colombia with his family, and has had stints working as
a building administrator, a waiter, and a construction
assistant.
“I had to leave that after a week because my body couldn’t
handle it,” he said, waiting for the Rappi app to call him up for
a new delivery. “In Rappi, I only work around six hours a day,
which is what my legs can handle.”
Tarre’s 20-year-old son, Raul, also works for Rappi, around 14
hours a day, making anywhere from $20 to $30. His wife has found a
job at a restaurant but occasionally works as a Rappi courier on
her extra time to bring home some additional income.
Romero said it is not uncommon for members of the same household to
work on the app. He lives in a two-story house that has been
modified to make several tiny studio apartments. Four other
residents of the house work as Rappi couriers, all of them
Venezuelans.
“It’s very difficult here to get a job in your own field,”
said Romero, who was working in Venezuelan as an engineer for the
national oil company. He left because hyperinflation decimated his
salary to the point where it was just barely enough to afford
food.
Life hasn’t been that much easier in Colombia, though. By 6:30
p.m., it starts to get dark in Bogota, and Romero, after being on
the streets for 12 hours, had made only the equivalent of $12 on 10
deliveries.
He said he would stick it out for three more hours, because he
needed money to pay his rent, and also to pay off a debt he
incurred to fix his bicycle. The previous bicycle he was using was
stolen from him at gunpoint.
“You could say I’m unlucky,” he said, laughing. “But I do
believe that this will just be temporary.”
Romero was trying to get a work visa for Chile, where he had been
told by friends that there are more opportunities for professionals
like himself.
“Rappi may be my job right now, but I’m not happy with this,”
he said. “I want to grow as a person, and move on to something
better.”

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Venezuela migrants propel billion-dollar delivery app