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labor Brazil’s Politicians, Unions, and Workers Can’t Agree on How To Protect Gig Labor

Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took on gig work platforms. “We’re not against someone working [by] delivering food on a bike,” said Lula during a union event. “We’re against them not having rights."

A photo of a worker picking up a food order from the street to deliver at a window.
A worker with the delivery platform iFood picks up a food order from a restaurant in Sao Paulo, Brazil. ,Victor Moriyama

While on the campaign trail in 2022, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made it clear he wanted to take on gig work platforms. “We’re not against someone working [by] delivering food on a bike,” said Lula during a union event in April of that year. “What we’re against is them not being respected as workers. We’re against them not having rights.” As president, he vowed he would establish regulation to give the workers “a minimum of social security.”

A few months after he was sworn in, Lula called together labor groups, representatives for gig work platforms, and government officials to create a working group that would craft new rules for the industry — the first step in making good on his promise. But barely a year after winning the presidency, the dream of gig work regulation in Brazil may be slipping away. Lula’s working group disbanded prematurely in late September, and there is little consensus on how Congress should proceed. Experts now fear that Brazil may have missed a valuable chance to regulate gig work, potentially leaving workers even worse off than before.

“The committee definitely did not meet what was expected of a government that claims at all times to be in defense of workers’ rights and in defense of decent work,” Rafael Grohmann, principal investigator for Fairwork Brazil, a project that researches technology in the workplace, told Rest of World. “The government was unable to advance even on the basic issues regarding pay and work conditions because there was no definitive discussion.”

The working group’s main accomplishment was to divide gig work into two main industries: ride-hailing platforms like Uber, and delivery platforms like iFood. But the split resulted in only minimal progress: Ride-hailing platforms committed to a minimum wage (the specific amount is still to be determined) and pension benefits, while delivery platforms found no common ground with workers at all.

The biggest challenge to building a consensus approach to labor rights has been the workers themselves. A survey conducted by a University of Brasília research group earlier this year with delivery workers from the Federal District asked them how to best regulate their working relationship with gig platforms. Roughly 60% of the workers said they preferred to be categorized as autonomous, while just over 10% said they would like a formal labor contract under Brazil’s current laws. “It’s not that they don’t want rights, but there is a rejection in relation to what they understand  a formal labor contract to be,” Ricardo Festi, one of the researchers who led the survey, told Rest of World.

When asked what they considered their priority demands, workers pointed to issues specific to platforms, such as the end of indisputable account blocks. “Demands that are traditionally brought up by unions appear last. It is significant to us that they don’t prioritize paid time off, the right to weekly days off, or a labor contract,” said Festi. Meanwhile, the government working group in Brasília focused exactly on these issues.

Splintered solidarity leaves unions unable to force platforms into a real negotiation. When the working group commenced, the biggest delivery app in Brazil, iFood, refused to discuss payment for the time workers were logged in to the app, according to labor group participants. Instead, iFood wanted any agreement to limit payment to the time workers spent actively delivering packages. For labor groups, payment for time logged in to the app was non-negotiable, which left the two sides deadlocked.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s plans to regulate gig work have faced a number of hurdles since he took office.

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Nicolas Souza Santos, member of the National Alliance for App Delivery Workers and one of the committee participants, told Rest of World the issue was central. “It’s like expecting a waiter to be paid for only the moment he is taking an order to the table. When he’s waiting, he’s not earning anything,” he said. 

Souza Santos attributes the deadlock to a few factors. For ride-hailing drivers, he believes there is more work demand and a lesser chance that they will be left without passengers, as has often been the case for delivery workers who have been left waiting for orders. But he also acknowledges the discussion came to a halt because of iFood’s dominance in Brazil — the app controls over 80% of the food delivery sector in the country. Colombia’s Rappi is the only plausible competitor in Brazil. 

“IFood has a lot of weight on the table due to its predominance in the market and it simply would not concede,” Souza Santos said. 

IFood declined to comment on the negotiations, but referred questions to the Brazilian Association of Mobility and Technology (Amobitec), an association that represents iFood, Uber, and other gig platforms in the region. “We saw the discussions evolve in a positive way,” an Amobitec representative told Rest of World, emphasizing the importance of “understanding that there are new forms of employment relationships that do not fit into existing legislation.”

Labor groups continue to push back against the idea of delivery work as a profession of informal, unattached workers. The way in which platforms have marketed gig work as “be your own boss” or as entrepreneurship has led workers to have a “frightening vision” of what a formal labor contract entails, Rodrigo Lopes, president of the Delivery App Workers’ Union of Pernambuco, told Rest of World. “Truth is, they barely know what a labor contract is,” he said. 

“There’s a lack of consciousness among gig workers generally,”

Carina Trindade, president of the App Drivers’ Union in Rio Grande do Sul, told Rest of World many workers don’t understand how much they’re giving up by embracing the platforms’ idea of informal gig work. “There’s a lack of consciousness among gig workers generally,” she said. “People will only become aware of this when, in the future, they need a pension, when they get blocked by the app, and seek the help of the union to unblock them because they have no money to pay for a lawyer.”

With the working group disbanded, the government’s labor ministry will take the next step. The department is expected to present a bill to Congress in the coming weeks to regulate app work for delivery workers, ride-hailing drivers, and package delivery workers that encompasses some of what was discussed by the committee. It will also determine the minimum hourly wage for drivers.