WorldNew York takes food deliverymen out of the shadows

New York takes food deliverymen out of the shadows


The photo of a delivery man on his bicycle, pedaling through the water at handlebar height and a backpack of food on his back, during the recent floods in New York, was one of the most viral images of a tropical storm that left 15 people dead in the city. . Tragedy aside, the image serves to identify a forgotten collective, the most precarious of all that make up the set of essential workers, and a parallel phenomenon – its B side, in every sense – to the emergence of the food app business in home, thanks to the pandemic. If before the health emergency there were 15,000 in the city deliverers (so they’re called, in a mixture of English and Spanish, because most of them are Hispanic), now it’s at least 65,000, although some sources raise that number to 80,000.

Delivery men are the lowest rung on the scale in the metropolis – mostly immigrants, many of them clandestine – but thanks to a package of laws passed in late September by the City of New York, they now have minimal legal backing against a billionaire market, dominated by algorithms and lacking in interlocutors, given the obvious impossibility of negotiating with an application. The municipal initiative, unprecedented in the US, could set a precedent for the regulation of a sector in full development, in which the lack of protection and rights – even the one to go to the toilet – is the norm. The political and administrative support also proves that the growing organization of many collectives offers a gradual result in a country that is very resistant to the union struggle, although this one enjoys the sympathies of President Joe Biden. And also that Democrat New York is a laboratory for social advances.

Nobody would say, seeing the deliverymen bent under the weight of their backpacks and absorbed in their cell phones waiting for the payload, that these twenty-first century pariahs would be able to raise their voices, but “David ends up beating Goliath in the end, contrary to predictions ”, says Hildalyn Colombo, director of Strategy at the Deliveristas Unidos union. “The pandemic took us out of the shadows and gave us public space. We are part of a productive process in which technology is creating new economic realities, and of a debate about the value and consideration of work that is also taking place in Europe, a new scenario that has not yet been designed.”

Delivery man in New York.Joana Toro

The provisions approved by the City are a basic exercise in dignity. The first establishes the right to use the restrooms of the restaurants whose food they deliver, with fines for the establishments that prevent them; the second, a minimum value per delivery, to be established in the coming months. The invoice must also tell the customer how much money went to the delivery person, and the delivery person will have to be told how much he will earn as a tip. In addition, the professional will be able to decide the maximum delivery distance. Guatemalan Jonathan Ramírez, five years on bicycle, explains the importance of delimiting the area: “If I have to travel 30 blocks for the same rate [2,5 dólares a entrega básica] who pay me to walk 5 blocks, it doesn’t pay for me, because I’m going to waste time and money”.

It all started just before the pandemic, when the Cornell University Workers’ Institute started a study of working conditions at the so-called gig economy, or “nozzle economy”. “The debate about their labor category (whether they are self-employed or not, what kind of relationship they have with their employers, whether they are employers and not intermediaries) was already burning. We contacted the Deliveristas Unidos union and, thanks to the resources we received from the State of New York as a public university, we published a report, which was the starting point for the law”, says Patricia Campos-Medina, director of the project. “Before the pandemic, there were between 10,000 and 15,000, but the emergency left many precarious workers without jobs, and they saw no option but to take the bicycle. Today, there are 65,000 in the city alone.”

No margin to negotiate – “It’s the apps and the restaurants that dictate the rules of the game” –, with an income of less than $10 an hour after deducting expenses (bicycle, spare parts and breakdowns; mobile rate and cost backpacks or thermal bags) and forced to accept any request not to be penalized by some algorithms, it would be utopian for the time being to think about free days and even more about paid leave. In the last 12 months, 17 deliverymen have died in traffic accidents, but the City Hall does not have the power to legislate on this. “We must reach the next level, the state level, which does have attributions to regulate compensation for accidents or death in a work-related accident”, adds the union leader.

A 'deliverist' during a delivery in New York.
A ‘deliverist’ during a delivery in New York.Joana Toro

The discontent accumulated by these lives in the open, in a city with an extreme climate, and the exacerbation of its precariousness due to the pandemic came together at the right time, recalls Colombo. “On rainy days we earn more money, because the customer feels sorry to see us soaked and gives more tips, but it’s very hard to ride underwater all day long,” says Edwin, Mexican, former kitchen assistant who became deliverer in the pandemic. On days of torrential rain, which are not uncommon, he prays that he will not have to cross any tunnels and any bridges exposed to the wind. “About half of the deliverymen we interviewed, 500, had already had an accident at work, and 75% had to pay medical expenses out of their own pocket”, recalls the teacher.

A market in full transformation – New York is the largest in the country, and the most voracious -, subjected to inhumane competition, and in which diffuse responsibilities give way to certain trickery, until now allowed, for example, to pay by order or by time, in an indistinct and random way, depending on the profit that the restaurant or the application had. Among the deliverymen interviewed in the study, 42 percent earned less than promised, or sometimes nothing. “The base is $2.50 per delivery, but we’ve seen apps that pay half a dollar,” recalls Colombo. Jonathan and Edwin celebrate, above all, the fact that they can go to the bathroom, such a human claim, which also put the workers of the giant Amazon on the warpath. “If I reject an order, I drop about 50 points in the application’s ranking,” says Jonathan, annoyed.

“They have no decision-making power, they are captives; because they can’t even wait inside the establishments when outside it’s raining like hell or it’s infernal heat!”, denounces Campos-Medina, who warns of the proliferation of these applications also in the call. care economics: a babysitter or caregiver right away, just a click away. For this reason, the researcher emphasizes, not only certain peremptory needs are in question, but also the pertinence of the concept of work, or at least its traditional definition. “It is a model that seeks to eliminate worker integration. If they can’t trade with the apps, then they can’t be called workers.”

Two delivery men in the Upper West Side, a district of New York.
Two delivery men in the Upper West Side, a district of New York.Joana Toro

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