“If it feels a bit damp, it’s because I just sanitized,” says José Antonio as my partner and I slide into the back seat of his car. It’s a Saturday afternoon, a quincena (pay day), and José Antonio is optimistic. The demand for Uber has started to pick back up in the city, markedly different from last May, when he had to wait up to an hour between trips.
Yesterday, José Antonio said he worked from 5:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., switching between Uber and the rideshare app DiDi to avoid Uber’s 12-hour time cap for drivers. The same 20 Uber trips that earned him the equivalent of US $60 USD yesterday, he estimates, would have made him US $90 before the pandemic (before paying for gas). These days, lower fares and lower demand mean longer days and higher stress.
Gig work in Mexico City has never been easy, but it used to be easier. The pandemic and increased competition between platforms have exacerbated underlying issues in the city’s gig economy, while also underscoring the essential role it plays in keeping the metropolis on its feet.
The panorama is complex: While demand has plummeted for app-based services in certain sectors, like ridesharing, it’s skyrocketed in others, like delivery. As of May, more than 200,000 drivers and deliverers were using Uber and Uber Eats in the country. Uber Eats competitor Rappi added more than 20,000 delivery workers to its platform last year, while Beijing-based DiDi saw a 150% increase in deliverers registered during second half of 2020, according to reporting by Forbes published in January 2021.
These numbers come to life in the streets of Mexico City. You can stand on a street corner and count the number of ride-shares that go by: drivers with their eyes fixed on their cell phone GPS, passengers in the back seat, both masked. You can walk by a park and find a dozen people with neon green or orange backpacks, hunched over cell phones, waiting for their next order.
While apps like Uber, Rappi and DiDi have served as a sort of safety net for some of the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who lost jobs in the pandemic-induced economic crisis (and long before that), it’s a safety net with fraying rope and gaping holes.
Uber drivers I spoke with, for example, reported earning less per trip than prior to the pandemic, working long days without rest, and feeling constant worry about Covid-19 exposure.
Uber communications manager María Fernanda Reséndiz confirmed that the company had implemented cuts in fare prices throughout the pandemic, “in an effort to balance the market and make it attractive for both riders and drivers.” As cities continue to re-open and demand increases, she said, fares will adjust accordingly. In April, the company also rolled out an approximately US $35.5 million stimulus package that lowers service fees and increases promotions for drivers and deliverers.
Indeed, as Mexico City edges into semáforo verde, relaxes health restrictions and grasps at a sense of normalcy, the increase in mobility is a relief for drivers. The estimated number of active Covid-19 cases on May 31 was 4,878, a steep decline from 36,975 on January 31.
During the contagion peak in January and February, Juan José, who started working for Uber three years ago after his taxi was stolen, remembers it being hard to bring himself to work, to listen to passengers talk about family members who had died from Covid-19. “You enter in psychosis,” he said.
The city feels different now, though fear still clouds around it—how could it not, when Covid-19 has killed more than 33,000 people here? But necessity normalizes fear, even fear that should never be normal.
“That [the virus] scares me…what can I do?” said Salvador, who told me he makes between the equivalent of US $175 and US $200 a week on Uber (after gas), from which he has to deduct US $100 to pay for the car he rents. “It does scare us… because we know it’s not an easy disease, we know it’s an expensive disease,” he said.
Arturo, who’s worked for Uber for three and a half years, knows this well. When he got Covid-19 in January, he told me he spent around US $2,000 on medication, doctors’ visits, and related costs. He didn’t work for three months, and his wife and daughters also got sick. His house filled with fear, remembering Arturo’s father, who died of Covid-19 last summer.
In the contagion web that criss-crosses Mexico City, it’s hard to nail down the “why” for any specific case. Uber would not confirm how many reports of Covid-19 cases it has received, but the company offers “financial assistance for up to 14 days” for drivers or deliverers diagnosed with Covid-19 or quarantined, wrote Reséndiz. She highlighted that Uber has a reimbursement program for drivers who purchase masks, antibacterial gel and sanitizers and has implemented extra verification to ensure users wear face coverings.
At the heart of all this, and the gig economy itself, is trust. Drivers have to trust that passengers won’t ride while sick, passengers have to trust that the stranger at the wheel will get them where they need to go, restaurants have to trust that deliverers will hand over their meals in one piece—and they all have to trust the gig companies for their health and economic wellbeing.
This complex web of trust, I think, ultimately leaves us with a “yes, and…” Yes, these companies create economic opportunity and flexibility, filling gaps left by the failures of the traditional economy and inadequate social safety nets. And, they could do more to make their platforms safer, stabler, and more equitable for those who rely on them for income. And, as users, we could also do better.
I’m reminded of José Claudio, who started driving for Uber four and a half years ago after losing his job as an accounting analyst. He caught Covid-19 in January, along with his wife, 2 year old, and in-laws, and didn’t work for three months while he recovered. Now, his family’s heightened fear of the virus collides with the pressure José Claudio feels to make up for that lost income. His wife wants him to leave Uber to find a job that requires interacting with fewer people—but for now, he doesn’t have many viable alternatives.
“This is the option we have to move forward,” he said.