BOGOTA, Colombia - As COVID deaths in Colombia reach an all-time high and a third wave of infections has left hospital systems on the verge of collapse, the massive delivery company Rappi said it would offer vaccines to its employees.
The catch: the delivery workers will have to compete against each other to prove they are the hardest workers to win just a handful of jabs.
Juan Sebastián Rozo, Rappi’s director of public affairs, announced this week during a local radio interview that the company will give vaccines to the five percent of its delivery workers who “deliver the most orders, spend the most time logged into the app and because of that are the most exposed.”
The news raised a public outcry in Colombia, which is enduring a brutal third wave of COVID infections, with commentators on social media calling the idea “macabre,” a “cynical attempt at using a crisis to improve productivity” and “dystopian.” Many users described the proposal, which isn’t based on any epidemiological rationale to account for workers' age or health, with a common Colombian insult: “gonorrhea.”
The plan also appeared to take advantage of its disproportionately Venezuelan migrant workforce. Many of them work for Rappi because they lack official documentation or are irregular migrants which makes them currently ineligible for vaccines that the government is providing.
Héctor Reyes, a Venezuelan migrant who works for Rappi in Bogotá, estimates that 80 percent of what the company calls “collaborators” who work for the service are Venezuelan migrants. “It offers a way to get by for those who don’t have permanent work, and that attracts migrants who can earn more than they would by working informally or at minimum wage jobs. The idea of a competition seems pretty cynical to me.”
Colombia entered the third stage of its vaccination rollout just two weeks ago, with legal residents 40 and older now eligible for jabs-- if they can find them. Just 17.5 percent of the population is currently fully vaccinated. The country is reeling from record daily deaths, which are among the highest in the world as a percentage of population, and a critical number of patients are flooding the hospitals in major urban centers. The ministry of health has reported more than 800,000 new infections in the last month alone, another new record.
Against this dire backdrop, Rappi is offering 4,000 vaccine doses, enough to fully vaccinate just 2,000 of their roughly 40,000 delivery workers in the four eligible cities of Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Barranquilla.
The company acquired the vaccines as part of President Iván Duque’s “Companies for Vaccination Plan,” a bid to involve the private sector in distribution by allowing them to purchase vaccines for their employees from the government, which acts as a middle man and assumes liability issues that have so far prevented vaccine producers from distributing the vaccines directly.
As Rappi’s proposal shows, the government places no conditions on how the companies distribute the vaccines to their workers.
Rappi dominates the delivery market in its home country of Colombia, but it has expanded to eight other countries since it was founded in 2015, including the giant markets of Brazil and Mexico. The app offers delivery of nearly every consumer good imaginable to clients’ doorsteps, from restaurant orders, to pet food, to sex toys, and 2020 was a year of massive growth for the company as strict national lockdown measures resulted in an explosion in home deliveries. The company, estimated to be worth about $3.5 billion, has announced plans to expand its presence in additional markets in Latin America.
Despite the massive growth in sales, the company has cut the commissions that go to delivery staff. “Before, the company charged, say, 6000 pesos [$1.59 USD] for a delivery, and half of that went to the delivery worker,” said Reyes in Bogota. “And we got bonuses for distance and orders that took more time. But during the pandemic they raised prices for the clients, and they now pay us 2000 pesos [53 cents] for a delivery. We survive almost entirely on tips.”
Workers in Colombia have protested what they described as unfair working conditions and impossible demands from the company before, even organizing a strike in September of last year. Rappi was also accused of turning a blind eye to underage workers in Brazil earlier this year.
The company released a statement backtracking somewhat Monday after public furor over the vaccine plan trended on social media. It said that vaccines would go to the hardest workers historically rather than asking workers to compete going forward and it promised to announce further details soon.
Rappi did not respond to numerous attempts by VICE World News to obtain comments on the changes.
“I view it as a good thing,” said Rafael Rodríguez, a Colombian who works for the company as a delivery worker. “Unfortunately, due to corruption and disorganization our government hasn’t handled this crisis very well. Every vaccine dose helps.”
“Other companies are likely watching the controversy closely as private sector vaccine distribution begins rollout,” said Sergio Gúzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a research and consultancy firm in Bogotá. “The episode highlights that what is legal is not always what is ethical.”