Fever

Couriers Protests in Ecuador: Proletarian Resistance in the Midst of Precarization and Pandemic

By: An unemployed and angry proletarian from the Ecuadorian region and translated by Malcontent

Quito, April 29th, 2020.

On April 22 (known as A22) there was an international strike of delivery workers from Glovo, Uber Eats, Rappi and other home delivery service Apps. Workers from Ecuador, Argentina, Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, and Spain participated. This protest is important and significant because it is the symbol and symptom of the reactivation of the struggle of the “intermittent global proletariat” [1] (which includes the migrant proletariat, such as the Venezuelan workers in Ecuador) in this period of pandemic and the crisis of worldwide capital; meaning a strike of the precarious proletariat from the service sector fighting against the generalized – sanitary, economic, political, social and civilizational – capitalist catastrophe of the 21st century. This began in the worldwide proletarian revolt of 2019, which has now been interrupted by the coronavirus, since the “war against the coronavirus” of all the states and companies on the planet is really a war against the proletariat.

April 1 (known as A1) was the day of the International Rent Strike, meaning not paying rent in the place you live. Considering that the majority of the population don’t own their own home, and therefore must pay rent in order to be able to have a roof over their heads; and that, due to the quarantine, they can’t go to work or they are unemployed or lacking the income sufficient to be able to pay the rent. Between April 1, this milestone date of proletarian struggle, and April 22, in various countries there have been protests of laid-off workers, pot-banging from windows and balconies, “teleprotests” of unpaid workers, wildcat strikes in factories, prison revolts and looting in supermarkets. But new austerity measures have also been introduced and brutal repression has been carried out by governments, those from both the left and the right. In short, April 2020 seems to be the month of the reactivation of the class struggle on a worldwide level in times of crisis, pandemic and global quarantine.

A fact that, despite my current pessimism, I find positive, as it is a symptom of a possible renewal – and hopefully intensification – of the international proletarian revolt. Because if the catastrophe sharpens, the revolt will also sharpen when the quarantine is lifted and all the accumulated class hatred of the proletariat is released and explodes in flames into the streets, against the rich, their politicians and their “guard dogs” (as it has already happened, for example, in the suburbs of Beirut, Athens, Paris, Santiago Chile, and Guayaquil[2]).

In this international context, [in April 22] Ecuador was one of the countries with the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the world: the more than 870 deaths (confirmed as coronavirus related) in the last months, principally in the city of Guayaquil, testify to this in tragic form. And The New York Times affirms that the real figure could be 15 times higher (13, 050 dead) than the official figure reported by the government. [3] Another modern tragedy are the premature lay-offs of more than 4,500 workers in recent weeks [4] (this is according to official figures, meaning the real figure is much higher). To this is added the reduction of working hours and of wages in the public, private, formal and informal sectors. In the face of this sanitary and economic massacre by employers and the terrorism of the state, proletarians have already responded with protests (by health sector workers who were infected, workers who were laid-off, unpaid teachers and super-exploited delivery workers…).[5]

There are more than 4,000 food home delivery workers on digital platforms[6] (informal workers in the service sector, which is a private sector of the economy), who are a part of the 46% of the “economically active population” in the situation of underemployment that exists in Ecuador (according to the National Institute of Census and Statistics -INEC); and their salary is what Marx, in Volume I of Das Kapital, called a “piece-wage” or “piecework pay”: they are paid a fee for every delivery made. On the pretext of the sanitary and economic emergency, under the narrative of the enterprises and governments that “we all have to pitch together in order to move the country forward”, the owners and bosses of these middle-man enterprises of transport services for food (and medicine) reduced the fee or pay from $1 to $0.30 for every delivery, meaning they reduced the piece-wage by 70% or almost three quarters. And under quarantine they are making the workers work more for less money, for example by doing “collective deliveries” instead of individual deliveries, yet receiving the same pay in return. In other words, in a situation of crisis, the classical and invariant measure of capital is applied to this sector of the 21st century proletariat in order to compensate for the fall in the rate of profit: to increase the rate of exploitation of the working class, and therefore, the rate of surplus-value.

The delivery workers are not “superheroes” as the bourgeois mass-media repeat: they are super-exploited workers that, in this period of coronavirus, spend all day working in the streets (as opposed to the teleworkers) and on top of that are not provided with Personal Protective Equipment (masks, goggles, gloves, antibacterial gel, etc.), thus exposing themselves to infection and later having to care for themselves and treat themselves as well as they are able to, since they don’t have health care coverage, either public or private. In short, they are in a job which puts their lives at risk.

“Due to these precarious and criminal work and living conditions imposed by transnational and local capital, dozens of delivery workers protested on April 17 (national strike) and the April 22 (international strike) in Quito.

What are the companies that profit from the work of the delivery workers doing to guarantee their safety and labor rights? The general director of Glovo Ecuador, in an interview with Telerama, said that the Glovo workers had been equipped with safety and hygiene equipment by the company, something which was rapidly dispelled by the community of Glovo workers in Quito. In addition to this they were obliged to make group deliveries. That is to say, they do two or more deliveries that are paid individually and in full by the users; while they are paid for having carried out just one delivery request with a supposed bonus of 30 cents. These conditions were denounced during a national strike on April 17, 2020. […] At an international level, the principal demands of the workers are an increase of 100% in the fee for each request realized and the provision of safety and hygiene equipment by the companies. So – how did the international strike go in Ecuador? On the morning of April 22 near the Glovo store, located in the north of the city of Quito, a group of delivery workers came together carrying Glovo and Rappi backpacks. The majority of the delivery workers have accounts for working on two or more platforms, that’s how they secure their incomes in order to sustain themselves. Meanwhile, Glovo workers with markers and paper wrote slogans and demands in order to make clear the reasons for the strike, and posted them in the vicinity of the shop.

Others placed their bags in front of the main door of the shop to prevent access to the dispatch. Some spoke with their colleagues to explain the necessity of striking, some of these colleagues said they recognized the need to go on strike to secure rights, but couldn’t because they needed the money to survive. If they didn’t work for a day then they wouldn’t be able to feed their families. In the long run, the solidarity and shared living experience allowed some workers to stop working whilst also supporting those who really couldn’t stop.

That morning, the strikes’ spokespersons were interviewed by the media, making it clear that the struggle for rights had no flag, that they met together in order to fight for dignified working conditions and because the slavery that the delivery app companies subject their workers to is unsustainable. Thus they announced that their struggle would be long term, and that the first thing to do would be to guarantee a 100% rise in payment for deliveries, as well as the provision of the personal protective equipment necessary for the pandemic.

Their longterm goal is that the real autonomy of the app workers be recognized or that they be registered as workers with a permanent work contract with all the legal benefits. This is a debate that would be carried out collectively, making decisions for the good of all the delivery workers.

Throughout the day, more delivery workers joined the protest, they arrived in groups, amongst whistles and shouts of “Let’s fight for our rights together!”. Some Glovo workers took the responsibility of preparing the route of the protest that went from the north to the south of the city in order to make visible the presence of the delivery workers and show the city that their work is essential for the quarantine and that its also essential that they have a fair income and safety at work.

After a short time, the national police appeared and, making use of patriarchal and class power, notified the delivery workers in an authoritarian tone that being in a group was prohibited, because of the state of emergency which the country is under, and they were told to park their motorcycles – the tools of their trade. They warned that if they didn’t move they would be fined and even imprisoned for disregarding the orders. The majority of the delivery workers took their means of transport and moved away together. However, the police were not content with dispersing the workers: they followed them and, at the crossing of the two main streets of the city (Gaspar de Villarroel and Shirys), a patrol car and two motorbikes suddenly charged head-on against the group of delivery workers on motorbikes and mopeds. The workers on motorbikes and mopeds managed to sidestep this act of violence with some acrobatics, and continued their route towards the south of the city.”[7]

It’s interesting to note that the delivery workers on motorbikes and mopeds protested in an organized manner, and at the same time spontaneously and autonomously, meaning without union or party intermediaries – at least in Ecuador. They shared information with colleagues at work and communicated the actions taken throughout the day to others. To do so, they used social networks such as WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. This is a concrete example of autonomous struggle, direct action, proletarian association and class solidarity by 21st century precarious workers, the super-exploited and migrants, making “new demands” (as well as demanding to be paid better) such as those for personal protective equipment against the coronavirus, and showing that, just like in their work, also in in their protests, they use NTICs (new technologies of information and communication) and organize online. If their struggle is intermittent, it is because their working conditions are intermittent.

We should also point out that, despite it having been a peaceful protest, the police didn’t take long to arrive and disperse the workers that protested outside of the Glovo Ecuador business. Forcing the delivery workers to improvise and go on a protest with their bikes from the north to the south of the city. This action received symbolic support on social networks from a portion of the population. The police, as always, protected the sacrosanct order of wage slavery and the circulation of commodities (principally, of the commodity-labor force) so that the companies could continue accumulating profits and power, in these times of digital platforms, the generalized precarization of labor, and pandemic. This fact is certainly illustrative of “digital slavery”, the “dystopian State” and commodity fetishism: in brief, of this system of alienation, exploitation, oppression and death. But it is also illustrative of the precarious proletarian resistance against it.

It’s important to add that it’s not the first time that the delivery workers have protested in Ecuador. In August and November of 2019 they also carried out protests related to the delivery fee (their disguised wage) – two months before and one month after the October Revolt of last year in this country. Thus, it’s possible that in the next social revolt the delivery worker comrades will be present, because this year they have already been protagonists of a national and international strike of their sector and of their branch.

Looking at it from this perspective, here and everywhere the struggle of the food delivery app workers is a true symbol of the precarious proletariat in the service sector and their assertive struggle under transnational computerized and finance capitalism in times of catastrophic crisis and of virtualization and social isolation. For saying that proletarians are neither objects nor numbers, but are human beings that want to be able to live rather than face so much death and so much misery.

And, at the same time, they are saying that they are afraid of unemployment and hunger as much as sickness and death. But above all, through action they temporarily interrupt the “new normality”, both work-related and social, of capital. Thus, beyond their specific and trade-oriented demands, the struggle of the delivery workers is a struggle for their lives and a direct counterattack on the capitalist economy, precisely because it is based on placing profits above life.

It’s also symbolic that if what they do is “essential work in the midst of precarization and pandemic”, working on the “front line” in the current social confinement, it’s not only because food is vital for everyone in quarantine and at all other times, but also because if they didn’t transport food, others (the “middle class” and “upper class” clients) wouldn’t be able to eat. But essentially because the working class is the exploited class that sustains the whole capitalist society with its work, yet it’s also the antagonistic class of capital that rebels against its condition as an exploited class because work sickens and kills (in these moments of pandemic the killing is very literal). In brief, this struggle is symbolic of the fact that the proletariat is the living contradiction between “dignified work” and the refusal of wage labor.

Only the real class struggle that is being reactivated on a global level will resolve this contradiction in social and historical practice, as much in this particular struggle as in all the struggles of all the sectors of the proletariat; and only it will tell whether the movement that annuls and overcomes the current state of things – communism – will become again a real movement and a “spectre” that traverses the capitalist world towards its total revolutionary transformation; whether it will radicalise and spread the current struggles for demands of the worldwide intermittent proletariat; whether it can force, break and overcome its own limits and contradictions as a class of, and at the same time, against, capital.

NOTES:

  1. “What is expanding explosively throughout the world are the precarious, intermittent workers around the globe, the superfluous persons that comprise an important portion of the new proletariat, especially in services. And this is the structural foundation of what I have come to denominate as digital slavery. Proletarians who, exactly because of these conditions, also rebel.” See: Antunes, Ricardo (2019). “El nuevo proletariado de servicios, valor e intermitencia: la vigencia (y la venganza) de Marx” In the Journal Herramienta N° 62, Año XXIII, Winter 2019, Buenos Aires-Argentina. Available at: https://herramienta.com.ar/articulo.php?id=3079
  2. See: El Comercio (27 de abril de 2020). Tres motos de la Policía fueron quemadas durante disturbios en operativo en Guayaquil: https://www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/motos-policia-quemadas-disturbios-guayaquil.html
  3. See: The New York Times-América Latina (23rd of April, 2020). El número de muertos en Ecuador durante el brote está entre los peores del mundo: https://www.nytimes.com/es/2020/04/23/espanol/america-latina/virus-ecuador-muertes.html
  4. See: El Comercio (21st of April, 2020). ¿Cuál es el impacto del covid-19 en los trabajadores de Ecuador: teletrabajo, rebaja salarial, despido intempestivo?: https://www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/ecuador-coronavirus-despidos-intempestivos-teletrabajo.html
  5. See: Proletarios Revolucionarios (15th of April, 2020)._ Breve análisis crítico de las últimas medidas económicas del gobierno de Moreno “para enfrentar la emergencia sanitaria” y de su “Programa Ecuador Solidario”_: http://proletariosrevolucionarios.blogspot.com/2020/04/breve-analisis-critico-de-las-ultimas.html; and,in this same blog, 22 de Abril de 2020: Paro Internacional de Repartidores: https://proletariosrevolucionarios.blogspot.com/2020/04/paro-internacional-de-repartidores-22.html
  6. See: El Telégrafo (9th of November, 2019). Tres plataformas generan 4.100 empleos: https://www.eltelegrafo.com.ec/noticias/economia/4/plataformas-digitales-repartidores
  7. See: Valencia, Belén (24th of April, 2020). Trabajo de reparto: trabajo esencial en medio de la precarización y la pandemia. La Tecla-R. Quito. Available at: http://www.latecla-r.com/2020/04/24/trabajo-de-reparto-trabajo-esencial-en-medio-de-la-precarizacion-y-la-pandemia/ See also: Hidalgo, Kruskaya y Valencia, Belén (2019). “Entre la precarización y el alivio cotidiano. Las plataformas Uber Eats y Glovo en Quito”, in Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Ecuador FES – ILDIS. Available at: http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/quito/15671.pdf

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