-OpEd-

BOGOTÁ — Hundreds of men sit around on the pavement, on steps or on a patch of grass. They're like an army, almost always in groups, with their equipment beside them. Some eat snacks from their lunchboxes. Mostly they're just waiting for their marching orders.

They're rappitenderos, delivery people and couriers who work for the South American startup Rappi. And they're everywhere, like an invading force. They're also archetypes of the so-called "sharing economy." Firms present them not as employees but independent entrepreneurs who find, in some platform or website, an opportunity for extra cash. In reality, they're youngsters without jobs, and since they have no employer, strictly speaking, they find it difficult to organize themselves to form a union or push collective demands.

For desperate people, Rappi is often just something to cling to. Its precarious conditions have already prompted complaints: you must buy your own uniform and case, and use your bicycle or motorbike. In exchange, they receive a delivery fee and tips.

Rappitenderos are a symptom of the paths being taken by a ruthless form of capitalism.

They are a symptom of the paths being taken by a ruthless form of capitalism, and above all of the scale of unemployment, especially among younger people. They illustrate how badly hundreds of people need to work, whatever the conditions, come rain or shine, amid fierce competition and forever diminishing fees. "We sometimes work for 12 hours, getting just three deliveries," one rappitendero told the weekly news magazine Semana.

These people are a sign of how you can start a firm with minimal capital and infrastructure, relying on nothing but a workforce and the law of supply and demand. One reads in the website Las2orillas that Rappi's office workers need to bring their own electronic equipment, and there is no cafeteria or breaks. The rappitenderos have also become an obstruction on pavements and potentially hazardous to pedestrians.

Rappitendero in Cordoba, Colombia — Photo: Official Instagram account

Online tech firms have come to stay. They have many advantages, so it is no longer about stopping, but regulating them. They need a bit of order and restriction, if only to protect their workers and the public space. Curiously, while Rappi is allowed to get away with so much, alternative transportation projects have either faced legal action, like Uber, or the rigorous imposition of usage rules, as with scooters.

With the latter, these are light, aesthetic and above all a valid response to traffic jams, and now they want to expel them from pavements and practically all public spaces. In other words, put them out of people's reach. The Bogotá transport authority has said they need to create rental kiosks for scooters on the street, and expects a single firm to be given a citywide license. That means they want a monopoly.

Worse still — and something we don't see in other countries — is that users will not be allowed to leave their scooters where they end their trip or nearby, but must leave them at designated stations. This effectively nullifies their utility and discourages a healthy initiative, which if properly overseen and controlled, would be an excellent option for so many.


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