“It was the first time that they saw a human face”: An interview with Alejandra Dinegro on the situation of platform workers in Peru by Diego Cerna Aragon

Published on November 15th, 2019

On October 21st hundreds of “glovers,” workers from Glovo – a Spanish delivery platform – who do deliveries by motorcycles and bikes, protested against the company in what could be considered the biggest organized protest of platform delivery workers in Peru to date. The primary motivation of the protest was the company’s reduction of their minimum payment, but during the protest topics such as the need for human contact and new forms of collective action also emerged. To learn more about the current situation of platform workers in Peru and the difficulties they face I interviewed Alejandra Dinegro, a politician and social science researcher who has been following this issue in Peru for the last couple of years.

The interview was originally conducted in Spanish and has been edited and translated for its publication.

Glovers protesting. The placard says: “No to the reduction of glovers’ salaries. We are the engine of Glovo Peru company. Hour or off #RespectMyJob”. Source: Screenshot from TV Peru (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVNR4kiuzXA).

Diego Cerna Aragon: To begin and to understand the context, could you please provide some background information and explain how you became involved in this issue, what was the origin of the protests, and what actions Glovo workers have taken?

Alejandra Dinegro: I have been researching platform work for some time now. I authored a bill while I worked in the Peruvian Congress with Manuel Dammert, former Peruvian congressman. In the process of making this bill, I researched these digital platforms, specifically delivery apps such as Glovo, Rappi and Uber Eats, but also platforms that offer other services like ride-hailing. While I was working on this bill I also elaborated a report about glovers and I kept in touch with them.

After some time, they contacted me to get some advice because of a series of situations that they perceived as abnormal. For example, some glovers were not getting their payments normally but after three or four months. Other glovers were having their accounts blocked without any prior notification. I believe they sought my support because they perceived me as a neutral person without any xenophobic bias – most of glovers in Lima are foreign citizens, mainly from Venezuela, but also from Ecuador and Colombia – that could help them to showcase their problems to the public.

I was present in their first gathering two months prior the first protest on October 21st, where I learned about all these adverse situations they were facing. Moreover, they did not know to what authority or institution to turn to. During the following two months, I kept attending these gatherings and they added me to a WhatsApp group formed by people they call administradores. This group is composed by approximately thirty administradores.

DCA: What do they mean by administradores?

AD: Glovers sometimes prefer to make deliveries in certain districts. For example, some glovers only want to make deliveries in districts like Miraflores and Barranco. Other glovers make deliveries anywhere, but live in a certain district. Glovers are divided by their geographic localization. So, for example, glovers living or working in Barranco organize themselves in a single WhatsApp group, and one of them serves as a group administrator. This is what they mean by administrador. The administradores not only manage a WhatsApp group, but also serve as the spokespersons of the glovers living or working in a certain district in Lima. Most of the glovers in each district have their own WhatsApp group and administrador and there is also a WhatsApp group composed only of administradores.

After some time, one of the glovers told me that they were evaluating whether to do a protest because Glovo announced that the minimum payment was going to be reduced from 2.5 to 1.2 soles [TN: 1 Peruvian sol = 0.3 American dollars]. Until that moment, glovers had a minimum payment of 2.5 soles per service. That meant that even if a service got cancelled they would still receive 2.5 soles as a payment. If they had to ride for seven or ten kilometers to make a delivery, their payment will add to this base amount.

So, they decided to do a protest in front of Glovo’s offices on October 21, 2019, and I attended mostly as an observer, but also as a supporter. I helped them to develop a document with seven points of demand. The central demands were that they did not want the base payment to be reduced. They wanted to keep working and they wanted to be heard by a human being. That day, Glovo agreed to meet with a group of 10 spokespersons, three Peruvians and seven Venezuelans. The meeting lasted around 3 hours and it was livestreamed by the glovers’ spokespersons. In total, the glovers protested for around seven hours, from 8 AM to 3 PM. During that period, approximately 1800 glovers declared themselves in strike. Despite this, no agreement was reached and the reduction of the minimum payment entered in effect.

Another motive for the protest was the reduction of their waiting time payment. Previously, glovers received 0.2 soles for each waiting minute and now they receive 0.1. So, let’s say that a glover has to wait 8 minutes in a restaurant for a sandwich. Previously, they would have received 1.6 soles for that waiting time. Now they would receive only 0.8.  In its response Glovo indicated, according to an algorithmic calculation, these changes actually aimed to improve the productivity of the platform and that the glovers themselves would be benefited. According to the company’s calculation, waiting times would be reduced and the aggregate payment of the delivery workers would stay the same. Nonetheless, given the fact that there are people with quantitative knowledge and postgraduate degrees among the glovers, they have been able to refute these arguments at a technical level.

That day of the October 21 protest, at 5 PM, Glovo ceased its activities in that building and nobody knew where they were operating. For a majority of the glovers that protested that day, it was the first time that they saw the people representing the company. It was the first time that they saw a human face. Even some of the glovers that had been working for two years or one and a half years told me “this is the first time that I know that there is a human being behind that wall, behind that platform.” All the communication between glovers and Glovo happens via email or phone. Somehow, they noticed that there were people that, although they could not make a decision on their own, existed behind this app.

Glovers protested again the following Monday, on October 28, 2019, but this time the protest did not gather the same amount of people because, as some of the glovers told me, the company contacted this group of 10 spokespersons and another 100 randomly selected glovers to offer them extra payments in exchange of accepting the reduction of the minimum payment. And they supposedly agreed to it, turning their backs to the demands of the majority of glovers. This caused tension among the administradores. They were discussing internally: “the company is dividing us. Why do some have to agree to something when our initial demands where different?” That is the current situation. They — at least this organized group – need to assess if they still have some degree of influence over the glovers. One of the measures that has been discussed is just disconnecting from the app, without protesting in any physical space. They are evaluating new ways to express their dissent.

Alejandra Dinegro (left) during the protest in front of Glovo’s offices. Source: Screenshot from Correo Peru (https://www.facebook.com/CorreoPeru/videos/769590793454091/)

DCA: This has been a well-detailed description. I would like to know more about the political background of the discussions, about the regulation of the work in these platforms. I am particularly interested in bills that have been discussed in the most recent Congress. As far as I know, there had been 7 or 8 bills about this topic, 3 of them proposed by Nuevo Peru, a left-leaning parliamentary group. I would like to know what political groups had the initiative to regulate this kind of labor.

AD: Indeed, there have been multiple bills in this past Congress, but we should differentiate two things. Before I elaborated the bill, I mentioned earlier there were some bills that tried to regulate platforms, but specifically ride-hailing platforms. Why? Because sometime around 2016, there was a lot of news stories reporting aggressions from Uber drivers toward female passengers. This was a highly sensitive issue at that moment. So some Congresspersons took the initiative and presented bills to regulate ride-hailing platforms, among those was one from Nuevo Peru, Alberto Quintanilla. Nonetheless, there were other bills from the fujimoristas Congresspersons that proposed to create a kind of registry of the ride-hailing platforms. The purpose of these bills was not to regulate the labor regime of these platforms, but to create a registry of all the employed drivers. That was the aim of this first group of bills.

There was a second moment, around 2018. Until then, there was not any bill aimed to regulate the employment relationship between the platform owners and those they call “their collaborators.” Because there is an employment relationship, there is a relationship of labor. Until the bill I authored there was not any other that touched on this issue. There were only bills trying to create registries for drivers of ride-hailing platforms. There was a discussion about the degree of responsibility of the platforms in relation to the actions of the drivers in case one of them assaulted a passenger. In this discussion the labor issue was secondary and the focus was the security of the passengers.

DCA: I would like to know if you have seen any similarities or patterns between Glovo’s labor practices and practices from other platforms around the world. I am thinking of platforms such as Deliveroo, another delivery app. I have been following the issues around Deliveroo’s delivery workers in Europe and they also protested a couple of months ago because Deliveroo tried to reduce their payments using similar arguments to the ones from Glovo in Peru. Deliveroo attempted to cut their payments under the premise that this would make the platform more efficient. Have you found any common patterns between Glovo’s labor practices in Peru and the current global context?

AD: There is a common pattern in these platforms: they do not consider themselves companies. They talk about themselves as digital platforms. Thus, they supposedly are just a technological infrastructure that serves as an intermediary to satisfy a demand between platform users and those who the companies call “collaborators.” Nonetheless, there are differences depending on the regulations and law enforcement in each territory where they operate. For example, in Argentina and Uruguay taxi driver unions have banned Uber. When I was in Uruguay, Uber drivers told me “please, if anyone asks, say that I am your uncle or your cousin, but do not say that I am an Uber driver.” They work in modo oscuro, as they say, in “shadow numbers.” That is because there is a union that rejects their presence and can influence public officials, at a national and local level. In Lima, and other parts of the world as well, there are legal loopholes, not only in how these platforms pay their taxes, but also in how these platforms relate to their “collaborators.” In practice, these collaborators carry out activities that are considered work.

Another thing that they all have in common on a commercial level–and one can see this in their social media channels–is this discourse of not only producing feelings of security, speed and efficiency, but also producing the idea that now we are in a more technological world where people no longer need to deal with commercial stores or companies to satisfy their needs. Now that you have a smartphone, you can order food, a taxi, or whatever. They want to produce the feeling that we no longer need companies, and that we only need these disruptive technologies to satisfy the needs of the people, on a micro and macro level.

In relation with how the so-called independent contractors have reacted to these platforms, in Europe there has been a greater social protests and organized actions than in Latin America. For example, in Spain ten delivery workers sued Deliveroo because the platform blocked their accounts, which, in practice, is the same as being fired. Delivery workers organized themselves to protest and they also created a union. Finally, the workers won the case and Deliveroo had to reintegrate them on the platform. One of the Spanish union leaders, Nuria Soto, told me that winning this case was not easy, but they appealed to the solidarity and empathy inside their communities. In other countries the protests have been much stronger. In Colombia, glovers burned their backpacks because one delivery worker died in an accident and the company did not take any responsibility.

In Peru, some Venezuelan workers have start talking about forming a union, but others tell them, “No, let’s not create a union. Let’s create another kind of organization.” Because, for example, they cannot gather on a weekly basis for 3 or 4 hours. For them, time is money that they would be losing. They are seeking new ways of organizing or even creating alternative platforms. That was the case in Spain, where delivery workers created Mensakas, an alternative cooperatively-owned platform that offers the same services but that recognizes people as workers, with working hours, a salary, and insurance. The confrontation with these companies could have positive consequences: it could unite workers and make them elaborate alternatives, like these cooperatively-owned platforms.

Placard from glovers, noting the reduction from 2.5 to 1.2 soles. It says: “Where are the 1.3 soles going? The rate of 1.2 soles does not even cover our basic needs. Hour or strike.” Source: https://twitter.com/enficcion/status/1188868835547312128

DCA: To return to Peru, do you see some kind of continuity between the precarization of employment in the last decades, which is a recurring theme in our neoliberal regime, and how these platforms basically inscribe precarity into code? I ask this especially because when these technologies are introduced into developing countries they are presented as new opportunities, something that can mark a “before” and “after” in peoples’ lives. Do you see a “before” and “after” with the introduction of these technologies or do you see certain continuities in the precarization of people’s lives?

AD: One of the characteristics of the 21st century work world is labor precarity, which has diverse origins. In the case of Latin America it’s mostly related to the neoliberal wave that was imposed since the eighties and that brought, as a consequence, the weakening of unions. Another factor is young people who have not been able to be incorporated to the labor market, in an economy in which there is a significant proportion of youth are ninis [NT: NEET, not in employment, education or training] who do not study or work. They are the most vulnerable.

In the case of Lima, there has been an exacerbating inequality and labor precarity. And besides labor precarity, informality, sub-employment and auto-employment, there is a considerable amount of people who are about to enter the job market. The next generation of people entering the job market are probably going to face more precarious conditions than you and I did. The job market in Peru has problems that come from the education system. There is a divorce between the education system and the job market. There are not enough technical schools. The ones that exist are precarious and have an obsolete curriculum. All this is known but the government, despite its recent National Plan for Competitiveness and Productivity, does not aim to promote any progressive measures in the educational field

DCA: To wrap up the interview, there is this idea that these new technologies put the tools in the hands of the workers. Some even say that the workers now own the means of production. As you have said earlier, there are some experiences where workers create their own alternative platforms, in which their rights are recognized. Nonetheless, how scalable are these initiatives? Can the workers with these technologies compete with transnational platforms and the whole sociotechnical assemblage behind them? My question would be: could these technologies, in hands of the workers, effectively become tools or sites of resistance to confront these giant transnational platforms?

AD: That’s an interesting question. I have not thought about it in those terms in depth. When we talk about these type of jobs, we are talking about a mode of labor where the person, the worker, establishes a relationship with an application, a technological application, without any capacity of negotiation over the terms and conditions of the labor. This is a totally unilateral relationship in which, in one extreme, the worker has to decide if it is convenient for him or her. It is in these circumstances that we should evaluate if these modes of community resistance would be able to confront these transnationals. I hope this can be possible.

But there are a series of factors that we should also consider. You mention concepts, such as means of production, which are markedly Marxist and, to be honest, they have generated for me some kind of “existential doubt.” Because, of course, in this case if the workers take the means of production, and so on… but the bottom line is that the main issue will not disappear–that is, the exploitation of worker. This duality between capital and work does not disappear. The essence of this dichotomy does not disappear. The central dispute does not change. You are still working, but in a cooperatively-owned platform.

Nonetheless, the ideal thing would be that they (the cooperatively-owned platforms) become sites or tools of resistance. But to accomplish this the workers would have to acquire certain tools and knowledge. And the workers are not only facing the precarity of their jobs, but also the precarity of their lives. The workers may be able to organize and protest, but up to what point can they continue to confront these platforms? Some have opted for a judicial route, but as I’ve read, this type of economy is not only an assault on the market and the state but also an assault on our culture and way of life. It goes beyond Glovo as a company. This is part of an economic regime in which the rule is to exploit the workers to the fullest while also forcing them to bear the consequences of the decisions of a few.

Bio of the interviewee:
Alejandra Dinegro is a sociologist and Peruvian politician based in Lima. Her research focuses on labor policy and work conditions. She is a regular op-ed contributor for Diario Uno and has published two books on social movements and grassroots organizations.

Bio of the interviewer:
Diego Cerna Aragon is a technology and media researcher from Peru. His work focuses on discourse analysis, expert knowledge, and the uses of new technologies. He currently is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Comparative Media Studies program, and a research assistant in the Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab.