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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Study: Over half of mobile app couriers in Mexico face poverty, safety risks

Couriers for Uber Eats and other food delivery apps in Mexico told Courthouse News their current situation is “even more precarious” than the time from which the Oxfam study took its data.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Víctor Kim lost his left foot after being run over by an ambulance while on the job for Uber Eats in December 2020. 

The company did not cover any of the costs of his medical care. 

Kim, 33, now makes his deliveries on crutches and, like the majority of those who deliver food for mobile apps in Mexico, struggles to get by. 

“My life changed completely from that moment on,” the Mexico City native said.

More than half of mobile app couriers in Mexico lack sufficient income to meet their basic needs and those of their dependents, according to a study released this past week by Oxfam México.

They also face grave risks to their safety and receive no benefits such as Social Security or health insurance, since they are not considered employees of the multinational corporations that operate the apps but rather “their own bosses.”

Food delivery apps like Uber Eats, Rappi and Didi Food — the latter two from Colombia and China, respectively — saw a surge in demand in Mexico thanks to the economic downturn and stay-at-home measures resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. 

This required more couriers. Didi Food saw a 200% rise in demand for new couriers at the beginning of the pandemic, the Oxfam study said. It and Rappi each currently have around 50,000 registered independent contractors delivering for them in Mexico.

But the dominant player in this industry is Uber Eats, which contracts around 250,000 couriers in Mexico along with Cornershop, the Chilean grocery delivery service for which Uber paid $450 million in 2020 for a controlling interest in Mexico.

Uber Eats saw a 125% revenue increase from 2019 to 2020, raking in $1.45 billion, according to Market Watch. The Oxfam study reported that Rappi saw its net revenue increase by more than 98%.

Business Insider reported in November 2021 that Uber used dozens of shell companies in the Netherlands to avoid paying taxes on almost $6 billion of revenue. 

But while these companies saw incredible growth during the pandemic, the majority of Mexico’s 350,000 mobile app couriers struggled to meet their basic needs on commissions and tips averaging around $400 a month. 

A representative from Oxfam México details the findings of the organization's study on the working conditions of mobile app couriers to visitors at an exhibition in a Mexico City park on Saturday, February 26, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

However, although the Oxfam study is fairly recent — the surveys carried out in August and September 2021 — they no longer paint an accurate portrait of the reality faced by couriers in 2022, said Saúl Gómez, founder of the advocacy group Ni Un Repartidor Menos (Not One Fewer Courier, or NURM). 

“The data from that study are already obsolete. We’ve seen considerable reductions in our earnings since November of last year,” said Gómez.

Gómez, 35, and other couriers earned an average of 25-30 pesos ($1.20-1.35) at the time of the study, but their commissions have been cut to an average of 17 pesos (82 cents) in recent months. 

And that’s before taxes. Despite not being considered employees, and thus receiving no government benefits, couriers pay a 3% income tax and 6% value-added tax. And they saw a new tax levied on them in December 2021: a 2% charge for the use of public spaces.

The Mexico City government said the change to the city’s fiscal code was “not a tax, [but] a 2% utilization of digital platforms on the intermediation fee charged by these large transnational corporations.”

The statement also clarified that the charge could not be transferred to businesses, consumers or couriers. Uber said in a statement to Courthouse News that it does not pass this tax on to couriers, but Gómez and other Uber Eats couriers maintain that they are still paying it. Didi Food and Rappi did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

“They charge me just to go outside and breathe,” said Kim. "What’s next? Are they going to tax my crutches, too?” 

These taxes bring their average commission per delivery to around 73 cents. Couriers are now having to work up to 15 hours a day in order to make what they did just four months ago.

Mexico City resident Carolina Zavaleta, 62, listens to a display at the Oxfam exhibition in February 2022. An occasional food delivery app user, she said that the exhibition made her "more aware of the dangerous couriers face on the job." (Cody Copeland, Courthouse News)

“The Oxfam study really has nothing to do with the reality we’re seeing now, which is even more precarious,” said Gómez, who along with NURM has taken the issue to Mexico’s Supreme Court. The case will see its first hearing later this month. 

NURM was formed in response to the death of José Manuel Matías Flores in November 2018 after being struck by a cargo truck while making deliveries on his bicycle for Uber Eats. The group has tallied 59 delivery worker deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Since Matías Flores, 23, was in the process of delivering an order, the company did provide insurance to his family through the provider Axa. 

But the company does not pay insurance if the courier is not actively delivering an order at the time of the accident, even if he or she is signed into the app. So while Kim was signed into the app the day of his accident in December 2020, he had yet to receive an order.

“Uber said they lamented what had happened, but could do nothing, and they hoped I could come and work for them again soon,” he said.

Couriers also risk being robbed, assaulted, sexually harassed or worse while on the job.

“The backpack makes you an easy target,” said Gómez.

Potential thieves know the person has at least a cellphone on them, and most likely cash to make change. And both men and women delivery workers have reported users answering the door naked to receive their orders. 

A memorial to Miguel Ángel Albarrán Bustos, who died in August 2021 when he was struck by a drunk driver while working as a mobile app courier. It reads: "His last delivery was August 11. He was murdered by a drunk." (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Still, Mexico City’s traffic-thronged streets present the most persistent threat. 

Kim was lucky that a governmental association gave him a prosthetic foot free of charge, but he received no financial assistance from Uber for his medical bills. He was forced to sell his motorcycle, refrigerator and even some clothing to cover the costs. 

In January, Kim was suspended from the service for three weeks after contracting Covid-19. The company only allowed him to return after submitting a negative Covid test, for which he paid out of pocket. 

He now delivers Uber Eats orders up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, hoping to save up for a new motorcycle so that he can fulfill more orders and earn at least more than he does now. He feels trapped in this job that isn’t employment, being charged “utilizations” that aren’t taxes.

“What else can I do?” he said.

Although couriers called its findings outdated, the Oxfam study made an impression at an exhibit in a Mexico City park this past Saturday.

Héctor Chávez, a security consultant in the federal Chamber of Deputies, called the way food delivery apps manage their couriers "deplorable," although he acknowledged using the services frequently.

When invited to provide a written statement defining what work means to him for the exhibition, he left a card reading: "Professional development in decent conditions."

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Categories / Business, Employment, International

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