The precarious working conditions and the physical and mental effort required in the activities of bicycle couriers in the service of digital applications often go unnoticed. For this reason, in his doctoral thesis, researcher Eduardo Rumening Souza, graduated in Social Sciences and Physical Education, followed the work of delivery cyclists in the city of São Paulo to analyze their quality of life.
According to the research, carried out at the EEFE (School of Physical Education and Sport) at USP, this type of delivery conveys the image of sustainability and active life, but this is not reflected in health and well-being for the worker, due to constant demands performance, overloads, risk of injury and accidents, and intense exposure to air pollution.
The analysis was made from the follow-up of five delivery cyclists during part of their daily journeys. The researcher observed workers from March to August 2020, cycling along with them for four hours a day. From this, an ethnography of the group was elaborated.
According to the author of the work, this ethnography consists of observing everyday life, trying to understand social life and translating certain urban culture to other people who are not part of that universe. Quantitative data were also collected, such as atmospheric pollution on the routes traveled and the intensity and volume of physical effort.
The platform economy has been a big trend in recent years in terms of business models. In this system, services are made available through a digital platform —a mobile application, for example—, which manages customer demands and service delivery.
Transport and deliveries are sectors that have intensively adopted this model, with a good portion of the work being done by delivery cyclists. A characteristic highlighted by the study was the gamification of the work, which happens through the attribution of points calculated by the algorithms taking into account a series of factors, such as the performance of the cyclists, weather conditions, day of the week and time of deliveries, in addition to the evaluation of the actors involved in the process.
This is how cyclists are constantly and intensely charged by the app itself to be faster and more efficient, even if this results in the risk of injuries and accidents.
The model encourages marked competitiveness, but the researcher emphasizes that the construction of bonds of empathy and solidarity among colleagues is clear, who help each other in the face of the challenges faced on a daily basis. Even so, the pressure exerted by the platforms generates in cyclists a frantic search for efficiency and productivity. In this context, it’s not just about the financial reward, but it’s also a testament to skill and strength among colleagues.
Being more efficient, in the case of deliveries by bicycle, means carrying more and more weight faster. The constant overload of bicycles – some of them modified to accommodate even more products – and the strenuous work routine can lead to chronic injuries and joint pain. Even the relationship with urban spaces enters the equation that involves productivity, displacement with overload and demand for speed.
It is common to see delivery cyclists circulating in an unconventional way on pedestrian paths, for example. Due to the particular knowledge of the urban terrain and its irregularities, the route mathematically calculated by the GPS is replaced by paths that require less physical effort. “The corpographic interpretation of the city, mediated by the bicycle, gives rise to alternative ways of perceiving and living the space”, comments the researcher.
The circulation through urban spaces presents itself as another challenge to be faced by cyclists. Not only because of the lack of structure to meet basic needs, such as using the bathroom or space to eat, but also because of the intense contact with pollution.
According to data collected using equipment attached to the bicycle and a heart monitor, cyclists can inhale five times more pollutants than a person in a sedentary commute, such as a car or a bus. As the study was carried out in the midst of the social isolation imposed by the covid-19 pandemic, when there was less movement of vehicles on the streets, it is possible that the inhaled pollution is even more intense.
Pollution can generate numerous deleterious side effects to the body related to inflammatory processes, increased blood pressure, oxidative stress, among others. The researcher comments that, from a strictly biological point of view, the benefits outweigh the harm in health considering active and sedentary displacements. This is because physical exercise activates anti-inflammatory responses and makes organisms less reactive to inhaled pollutants. Even when performed in a polluted environment, physical exercise generates benefits for the active organism.
In addition, the platform economy provides a remunerated activity in a fast and unbureaucratic way to people who find few opportunities in the traditional job market. However, this facility does not come without a cost in the precarious work format. To meet the demands, according to the researcher, the couriers reorganize “their own lives, placing basic needs such as circadian rhythm, food, cleanliness, all of this according to the platform’s operating scheme”.
For the author of the study, the improvement in the quality of life of cyclists depends on the government’s engagement in developing and adopting public policies that bring more dignified conditions for the exercise of functions. This occurs through political mobilization and class organization. He cites the demonstration that took place in June 2020 in São Paulo called BrequedosApps, in which thousands of delivery men temporarily suspended their work routine to protest for better working conditions.
“Technology has quantitatively and qualitatively changed the way informal work is incorporated into the logic of capital accumulation. It manages to extract the smallest fragments of time from a person’s life, and compose it in the capitalist dynamics, which was previously not possible in informality. So, what these companies are selling is the precariousness of human life, which is unsustainable in the long term and could lead to social chaos”, comments the researcher.
The study was guided by Professor Luiz Dantas and defended in December 2021 at EEFE at USP. The thesis, entitled Urban tugboats and platform capitalism: essay on bicycle delivery in São Paulo, is available at USP’s Bank of Theses and Dissertations and can be accessed at this link.
* With information from EEFE’s Institutional Relations and Communications Section.