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When WhatsApp went down, Brazilian workers’ jobs went with it

The day before a job, Luiza Ferreira always messages her client on WhatsApp to confirm they need her services. Ferreira is a cleaner in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and she cleans different households every day. If the job is confirmed, she knows she won’t be wasting money on her commute and guarantees income for that day. If the job is not confirmed, she tries to fit another client in her schedule so she doesn’t lose money for the day.

But on October 4th, that system fell apart. A configuration change in Facebook’s internal network wiped the company’s services off the internet for six hours — including WhatsApp. Cut off from Brazil’s primary mode of communication, Ferreira’s business ground to a halt.

“By the time I started using SMS instead of WhatsApp, it was too late and I couldn’t book another client for the next day instead,” Ferreira told The Verge in an interview through WhatsApp audio notes. “My client didn’t see the text message I sent her. When WhatsApp was down, it really disrupted my life.”

The outage lasted for six hours, but it cost Ferriera two whole days’ worth of earnings, since she also couldn’t schedule work for the following day. “That’s income I can’t really get back,” she says.

Facebook and WhatsApp are the most popular online platforms in Brazil, spanning regional and social divides. Fifty-nine percent of the population has a Facebook account and 66 percent use WhatsApp, turning the services into a kind of essential infrastructure for the country. Professor Rafael Grohmann, coordinator of the DigiLabour Research Lab and a collaborator of the project Fairwork at University of Oxford, attributes Brazilians’ use of WhatsApp instead of text messaging or email to several factors. Brazil lacks telecom infrastructure and competitive market share that makes communications service affordable, and the free app allows Brazilian users to bypass expensive messaging services.

“During the pandemic, [WhatsApp] became the place where everything is done,” Grohmann says.

The app has become particularly vital for informal workers, who depend on the free service to manage their work schedules, charge clients, and sell products. So when both platforms went down, the livelihoods of Ferreira and millions of other informal workers went down with them. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, 34.7 million people in Brazil work in the informal economy of the country, without the safety net of formal employment and benefits. During the pandemic, the number of informal workers has grown by 40 percent due to the worsening economic crisis in Brazil.

There are competing services for arranging informal work — most notably Uber and Rappi — but they all charge a percentage of the workers’ pay. As a result, workers often actively move their clients onto WhatsApp to avoid losing a cut of their earnings. “It’s common for cleaners to tell their clients, this platform gets 15 to 20 percent of my pay, I’ll give you a cheaper price if you schedule through WhatsApp and pay me through bank transfer,” Grohmann said.

During the outage, Bruno Torres, an online salesman for children’s clothes, estimated he lost around R$3,000 (US$500). “We needed to post our new merchandise and speak to our clients who were asking if we had any new clothes,” Torres said. “Loads of clients were calling a single phone number.”

For Torres, WhatsApp is a free tool of communication that allows him to speak to several clients at the same time, thus maximizing his profit. “Without WhatsApp, there would be a decline in my sales,” Torres said. “And it would also impact my psychological wellbeing.”

WhatsApp commerce also extends to one-off sales of homemade goods and a wide range of less easily classifiable work. In a research paper about the effects of the pandemic on work, the Information and Communication Nucleus of the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (NIC) found that 30 percent of internet users who worked during the pandemic sold products or services over messaging apps.

“People find ways to sell their wares, in Brazil we call this viração, when you manage to survive by selling things, be that cakes or clothes, whatever,” Grohmann explained. “This is a way for the working class to survive and they start to depend more and more on WhatsApp for that.”

Grohmann says even securely employed workers use the app to communicate during the workday, and that the audio feature is particularly helpful for informal workers who cannot read or write well.

“Brazil has a very high illiteracy rate, so audio notes are very useful,” Grohmann explained. “We also have a very oral culture. So the use of audio notes for Brazilians is really important and it intersects with the culture of informal work and who does that work. I know people who send me voice notes saying ‘OK’ rather than writing it down.”

Grohmann says that WhatsApp has also allowed workers to organize against precarity, showing how the use of privatized modes of communications can be negotiated and used to the advantage of the workers. “Delivery app workers in Brazil started organizing through WhatsApp, in group chats [designed for organizing strikes],” he said.

Once the disruption to WhatsApp was repaired, workers who had their livelihood disrupted rushed to make up for lost time and money. There’s no guarantee there won’t be another outage, but most informal workers depend on the free, dynamic service to make a living. “We really depend on this service to be able to work in our day to day life,” Torres said.

Leaving the platform for another isn’t really an option. The usage of WhatsApp in Brazil is practically an inescapable fact of daily life. Grohmann explains that workers wouldn’t move to other comms services because most Brazilians use WhatsApp. “A few people created accounts on Telegram when WhatsApp was down, but very few people in Brazil use other communication platforms other than WhatsApp,” he said. “Changing platforms wouldn’t mean better communication with clients.”

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