“Pandemic as a portal”: a reflection on COVID-19 and the food-delivery industry

Ana Carolina Nunes
Oregon State University

I live on the second floor of an apartment complex. The two big windows in my living room and kitchen give me a privileged view of the life that happens outside. Through my windows, I observe many workers delivering food to other people living in the apartments right in front of mine. Just yesterday, I noticed a lady with white hair leaving her car, an old Corolla, with a DoorDash catering bag. I observed as she went upstairs to deliver food to a neighbor and then returned to her car with a seemingly lighter bag, probably getting ready for her next job. That image followed me till the end of the day, as I was curious to know what had led that lady—part of a demographic considered vulnerable to COVID-19 due to her age—to become a delivery driver during a global pandemic. When my partner got home from work, I told him about the scene I had seen earlier. My partner is also a food industry worker, one of the lucky ones who hasn’t lost his job due to the pandemic. 

DoorDash Catering Bag

I’m a Ph.D. student in Applied Anthropology. I research digital technologies, but because of my partner’s job, I’ve become closer to the topic of food chain workers in a time when digital technologies occupy every minute of people’s lives. The food delivery industry isn’t a given or stable object, and I’ve chosen to look at it through the lenses of hope, hope that the pandemic can work as a portal to transform it.

I first heard about this metaphor from Ruha Benjamin when she cited Arundhati Roy’s The pandemic is a portal essay, in which she writes:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Following Arundhati Roy and Benjamin’s steps, I also want to see the pandemic as a portal. This portal can lead to changes in the structure of a capitalistic system that exploits essential but devalued food workers.

The tech companies and the food delivery industry

At the beginning of the pandemic, many people became enthusiastic about cooking at home, even baking loaves of bread that looked beautiful on Instagram pictures that I vividly remember seeing during several hours of doom scrolling. But as there is no end in sight, and the situation has been going on for a while, some people are getting tired of cooking, and that’s when the food delivery system becomes an option. 

Many tech companies portray the uberization of the food industry as a desirable future. You can look at your phone with any culinary craving in the world, and a few minutes later, the food conveniently arrives at your door, even during a global pandemic. For those who own the technology, CEOs and tech venture firms, and for those who occupy the top positions in such companies, the service-oriented platforms are the best thing that happened to food. Yet behind the apps is a world of unsustainable exploitation in desperate need of governmental regulation.  

Gig work is not a new invention from Silicon Valley, but a practice that has kept temporary workers doing a significant amount of the American industry jobs for a long time. This working system took off in the period following World War II. It was developed to help companies when their permanent employees could not work for short periods; it has also altered America’s corporate culture throughout time. Uberization is, however, a recent invention, and its story traces back to the beginning of the transportation service company, Uber. 

Uber started as UberCab, offering a luxury transportation service in 2009. The innovative factor behind Uber was the idea of paying individual contractors through an app. Companies win because they don’t have full-time employees, only independent contractors. Uber moved into the food industry in 2014, when it launched its UberEats. Amazon has also gotten into the food system, and it now owns Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh, a 2-hour delivery service for Prime members in selected cities. At the same time, Walmart has partnered with Instacart to compete with Amazon’s Whole Foods. Even before the pandemic, some restaurants were making more money from food eaten outside the restaurants than inside it. Take Grub Hub, now a giant in this market, as an example. The company started its operation on a local scale in Chicago in 2004 and was already processing more than 500,000 transactions per day in February before COVID 19’s social isolation measures were implemented. Since then, the market for food delivery through apps has become a billion-dollar industry in the US. 

The money tech companies now make through their platforms for food delivery doesn’t translate into better pay for the people actually delivering the food. Nor, does it bring much benefit to small restaurants that make the food since they have to pay as much as 25% of every order they receive to such platforms; restaurants also lose important consumer data, and have to pay extra toa search optimization engine,which means that if you want your restaurant to have higher visibility on a website, you need to pay more for it. Otherwise, your restaurant will appear at the end of the list, invisible to clients.

As for the deliverers, they need to use their own vehicles for deliveries and sometimes buy their own equipment, such as thermal bags, with the delivery service logo. Since they’re individual contractors and not employees, they don’t have social security, health insurance, insurance of any kind, no sick pay, no holiday pay, and no vacations. In offering the platform/technology that connects seller, buyer, and delivery, tech companies present their products as an opportunity for the driver to be their own boss, deciding their working hours and living a good life afterwards. But in the end, gig-workers aren’t making $400 a day. Instead, most people get into these precarious jobs because they don’t have another option.

Uberization of work is a form of capitalism that fragilizes labor laws as it favors company shareholders and leads to increasing precariousness of work. From an economic and social perspective, it’s a massive movement backward in time to what researcher Adam Arvidsson calls a feudalization of digital capitalism. That can be illustrated with the case of prop 22, a ballot measure passed in California at the beginning of November, allowing tech platform companies to hire drivers as independent contractors. Scholars and activists have raised concerns over this measure, highlighting that gig companies invested over $205 million into propaganda that misled voters. The fragility and vulnerability of workers in the gig industry is a worldwide phenomenon. However, the good news is that there are examples of workers developing their own workers-owned technology, also called platform cooperativism, and organizing to subvert the order imposed by the gig-economy.

Entregadores no Brasil

Antifascists Couriers: I don’t want cattle (mindless workers). I want to train thinking deliverers.” Screenshot from an interview from A Publica with Paulo Lima

In Brazil, a movement formed by delivery workers has received national attention as the cases of COVID-19 soared worldwide. They claim living wages, better working conditions, and demand to be seen as workers. The crucial moment was June of 2020, when a delivery worker’s moving and emotional video gave rise to this movement. In the video, Paulo Lima, who became a leading voice of Entregadores Antifascistas, denounced mistreatment and precarious working conditions. On July 1st, delivery workers went on strike. Another strike on July 25th (Breque dos Apps) brought attention to inequality and exploitation. As a consequence, there are now several bills in the Brazilian Congress that, if approved, will improve the lives of delivery workers. There are other local bills throughout Brazil trying to address this matter, as there are also discussions about platform cooperativism in the country. 

Conclusion—Pandemic as a portal 

I started reading about how some companies use lay-offs due to COVID as a pretext for age discrimination. It made me think about the case of the white-haired woman that opened this text. In fact, a relative of mine who had worked for years in a company was fired without notice just a few months ago. That person is seriously considering joining the food-delivery industry, as they don’t see any other option in sight. I also talked to an older lady in the dog park last Sunday and she was telling me that she lost her job due to the pandemic, and that as she was looking for new job options on Craigslist. She only found jobs with Grub Hub, and Munchies, a local delivery service operating in Oregon and Florida. 

If app-based food delivery is the future, we need to make sure it benefits all people involved in it. The delivery of food, sometimes taken for granted, is a complex process, resulting in food produced in a restaurant kitchen appearing almost “magically” at your door. As said by Benjamin, a portal can lead us to good or bad, and I wish the pandemic could function as a portal to transform working conditions and bring equality and fair salaries to essential, but devalued, food workers. That would involve, of course, listening to delivery workers’ demands and a collective effort to dismantle systems of oppression currently in place. Platform cooperativism and spontaneous movements organized and led by delivery workers worldwide also point in that direction. 

Ana Carolina Nunes is a PhD student in Applied Anthropology at Oregon State University.

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