Ricardo Patah of UGT Brazil: “For the work of the future, we need a union of the future”

Ricardo Patah of UGT Brazil: “For the work of the future, we need a union of the future”

Ricardo Patah, president of União Geral dos Trabalhadores (General Workers’ Union, UGT) and the Sindicato dos Comerciários de São Paulo (the São Paulo Trade Workers’ Union).

(União Geral dos Trabalhadores)

With the ‘uberisation’ of the economy over the last decade, the world has witnessed a rapid and sweeping transformation of the world of work and labour relations. According to a 2021 report on the subject by the Fairwork Brazil project, digital service platforms fail to create conditions that meet the minimum requirements of decent work. Workers on these platforms, primarily those offering delivery and passenger transport services, have virtually no contractual relationships or rights. Fairwork scored Brazil’s six largest digital labour platforms (iFood, 99, Rappi, GetNinjas, Uber and Uber Eats*) against five fair work principles relating to pay, working conditions, contracts, management and representation. The highest score achieved was 2 out of 10.

Against this backdrop, trade unions face the challenge of organising these workers while simultaneously leading the fight to secure minimum rights to decent work and social security. “Today, [digital platform] workers in Brazil and throughout the world embody the precariousness of capital-labour relations,” says Ricardo Patah, president of União Geral dos Trabalhadores (General Workers’ Union, UGT) and the Sindicato dos Comerciários de São Paulo (the São Paulo Trade Workers’ Union). The UGT, one of Brazil’s largest trade union centres, has initiated a dialogue with digital platforms and other centres aimed at expanding the rights and guarantees of digital platform workers.

In an interview with Equal Times, Patah discusses the conditions that digital platform workers in Brazil face, particularly the country’s nearly 300,000 - according to statistics from the Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (The Institute of Applied Economic Research, IPEA) - motoboys (motorbike delivery workers) and the options available to unions for organising these workers.


Can you describe the most common working conditions and the labour rights situation that digital platform workers in Brazil face today?

Companies like iFood, Rappi and Uber do not consider the workers who provide services through their platforms to be employees, meaning that these workers are not formally protected by Brazilian labour law. The relationship between these companies and their ‘partners’ as they call them is essentially governed by a membership contract, where workers simply accept the terms of use that subject them to conditions set by the company.

As a result, they have no labour rights as we understand them: no minimum wage, no paid holidays, and of course, no mention of social security or overtime pay. The guarantees that the CLT (Consolidation of Labour Laws, the decree which governs labour relations in Brazil) provides for formal jobs simply do not exist in this universe and even union representation is a complex issue. The fact that these companies have no ‘employees’ at the end of the chain makes classical union relations impossible.

Working conditions vary significantly so it’s important to understand the profiles and activities of the different digital platform workers: for example, app drivers who work on platforms like Uber to make ends meet, versus delivery workers on apps like iFood, who use bicycles to make deliveries and live exclusively from this work.
We have received reports of gruelling working days, men, women and minors working 12 hours a day or more to survive. These delivery workers provide the population with food but don’t even have time to eat during their working day.

The profiles of these workers run the gamut but some commonalities stand out: all work without adequate legal support and in a precarious situation that makes dialogue, organisation and negotiation difficult.

What is the UGT’s approach to organising these workers?

The uberisation of the labour market is not just a reality in countries like Brazil but throughout the entire world. SINDIMOTO SP, the largest union of motorbike couriers in Brazil and an affiliate of the UGT, is fighting for recognition of the employee status of these workers. The UGT understands that this struggle is important, but while this debate plays out in the judicial and legislative spheres, we have to seek more immediate solutions.

It is crucial that we develop parallel strategies to achieve better working conditions for these workers now. SINDIMOTO, together with the UGT, maintains a dialogue with certain platforms in the sector, such as iFood, with regard to creating professional qualification programmes, offering training grants, implementing or improving social protection policies (insurance and medical care), initiatives to protect health and income during the pandemic, etc. These are the areas in which we are working together, raising awareness and engaging in dialogue to achieve concrete policy solutions.

Did the 2017 reform of the Labour Code, promoted by Brazil’s then president Michel Temer, pave the way for the precarious situation of these workers?

Let me start by saying that these applications are not a consequence of the reform; they are a consequence of the fourth industrial revolution. They would exist in their current form with our without the reform, so I think the labour reform has had a secondary impact on this process.

The main reason for this is that uberisation is a global phenomenon and in no way exclusive to Brazil. Uber appeared in the United States in 2009. iFood, the Brazilian giant that now also operates in other countries such as Argentina, Mexico and Colombia, was founded in 2011. The context of the economic crises and the pandemic itself, which has reduced economic activity and increased unemployment, has had a much more direct impact on the increase in the number of workers on these platforms.

For example, the pandemic saw a tripling of the number of couriers in Brazil due to an exponential increase in the demand for deliveries (while many people were working remotely from home) as well as the increase in unemployment caused by the economic crisis, business closures and job losses.

The reform has also had an impact, albeit indirect. Precarious work and a loss of income have pushed workers to look for ways to supplement their income, while the weakening of trade unions after the reform considerably hinders the process of organising workers and fighting for better working conditions in the formal market. This, of course, contributes in some way to the scenario we are experiencing today.

Given this increased demand and the urgency of the situation, what are the challenges that unions face in organising these workers?

There is no doubt that we have to contextualise the world in which we are living. Even as the pandemic is fading, many of the problems that it created or exasperated, such as supermarkets with self-checkouts and other trends that we didn’t expect to see to this extent, like teleworking, online shopping, which today accounts for more than 60 per cent of sales in some companies, the proliferation of service applications, etc.

We are discussing how to create the trade union movement of the future, but we also have to think about the trade union movement of the present. We are always talking about the jobs ‘of the future’, the work ‘of the future’, but we can’t forget to create trade unions linked to these forms of employment of the 21st century. Faced with such rapid change, the Brazilian trade union movement is generally lagging behind. And we need to research, create, debate and discuss this. This is part of the UGT’s plans, because we believe that we have the capacity to reach some workers through social networks in order to attract their attention and get them to join the union, which remains one of the fundamental pillars of democracy.

In your opinion, how can the trade union movement act at the global level to ensure decent work for digital platform workers?

Well, for the work of the future we need a union of the future. We are focused on a few main things in Brazil, including fighting hard to reduce the working day [which is 44 hours a week], as there has been a significant decrease in the supply of jobs, meaning that there has been a very sharp decline in traditional job offers even as technology has created new occupations. So in my opinion we have to fight to shorten the working day and improve professional qualifications to ensure that people are prepared for new types of work, as in the case of digital platforms.

The best of all worlds would be one where digital platform workers have the same conditions as any worker in the commercial or banking sector, i.e. formality, declared working hours, social security entitlements and collective bargaining. And until we can achieve this, we need to look for alternative forms of dialogue with the digital platform companies in order to achieve minimum protections that ensure health protection and a decent life.

We have already begun this work. These companies have started to implement the improvements we are asking for, not exactly as we would like, but they have already started the job and we have to continue it.

This article has been translated from French by Brandon Johnson

* UberEats terminated its service in Brazil in January 2022.

This article was produced with the support of the Belgian trade union ACV-CSC and the Directorate General for Belgian Development Cooperation.