On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Brazilian labor inspectors found that children were making deliveries through Rappi, a major Colombia-based on-demand platform flush with capital from financiers like SoftBank, Sequoia, and Andreessen Horowitz.
An investigation stretching from April to December 2020 interviewed 150 app-based delivery workers, fifteen of which were underage (“16 or 17 years old,” according to Reuters) and had been using other accounts to work for the firm.
Rappi told Reuters that the firm takes necessary precautions to avoid this situation, including "making workers take selfies during shifts" so that facial recognition software can verify their identity. But while Rappi insists "it does not condone and is against the use of child labor," the question remains how it happened in the first place.
"What (Rappi) want is to offer a cheap and reliable service, they don't care if the delivery man is elderly or a teenager," said Rafael Augusto Vido da Silva, a labor inspector who also co-authored a report on the firm's labor practices.
In the report, Silva’s organization—the Public Labor Prosecution Office—found that Rappi workers were actually misclassified as contractors and should be treated as employees. Auditors determined Rapi was purposefully deploying misclassification to deny workers access to formal labor rights and that the firm attempted to stonewall the investigation by refusing to offer key data to auditors, even after formal requests were made.
Rappi spokespeople were not immediately available to comment.
The problem of child labor on delivery apps is not isolated to Rappi. In December, a Reuters investigation found children working not just for Rappi, but other platforms well-established in Brazil such as iFood, 99Food, and Uber Eats. Often, these children would use the accounts of older relatives to complete deliveries.
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Part of this rush to the app has been fueled by school closures, as well as layoffs and persistent unemployment during the pandemic. Another part comes from out of the already widespread problem of child labor in Brazil: the government last found in 2016 that some 2.4 million children work legally and illegally in Brazil.
Delivery apps have removed some accounts used by children, but the Reuters' investigation suggests a wider problem that spills out onto other platforms such as Facebook and Youtube.
At one point, Reuters points to "dozens'' of public and private Facebook groups concerning app-based gig work that feature children talking about "signing up to the apps using the identity documents of friends and relatives." There are even public videos on platforms like Youtube that offer instructions on how to best do this. In one video, a child says "I'm here to help all of you who are minors and want to work for Uber Eats'' as he delivers for 99Food and Uber Eats. Another video features an adult explaining how they allow their underage nephew to use their account.
"I'm not sure if they are interested in creating programs to stop young people from entering this market," Ludmimla Abilio, a researcher at the University of Campinas, told Reuters. "For now, it seems their only interest is that deliveries get made."
In the meantime, the companies’ legal liability is an open question. Delivery workers are classified as contractors in Brazil as they are globally, allowing the firm to tightly control workers to squeeze out more production but to claim distance when it finds itself part of something like child labor. Uber Eats, Rappi, and iFood all told Reuters they have and will continue to take steps to combat what they described as "fraud" on their platforms.