Deaths and injuries don’t slow Uber Eats’ rapid expansion in Mexico

Rush-hour traffic comes to a halt in downtown Mexico City, as two dozen gig workers for Uber Eats and its Colombian competitor Rappi bike across one of the city’s busiest intersections. It’s dark except for flashing street lights that reflect off the neon green and orange backpacks of the delivery workers. The protestors wheel their bicycles down Insurgentes Avenue, crossing Reforma, carrying signs that read: “No more road deaths!” and “Not one delivery person killed!”

Traffic cops rush into the intersection to stop the flow of cars, while drivers honk angrily, their evening commute delayed. Some of the protestors taunt them, “Get out of your car and onto a bike!”

“Get out of your car and onto a bike!”

Two days earlier, on November 27th, the workers had lost one of their own. José Manuel Matías Flores, 22, was riding his bike in southwest Mexico City, carrying an Uber Eats food delivery. Merging onto a major avenue, a truck hit him and then sped off. Matías Flores was declared dead at the scene. The protesters are demanding that Uber take responsibility and help his surviving family members.

Matías Flores was the first known death of an Uber Eats worker in Mexico, two years after the service was introduced in October 2016. In the following six months, four more Uber Eats couriers have died in crashes. On December 12th in Puebla, Luis Fernando Hernández Fong, 23, was killed, leaving behind a three-year-old daughter. On February 10th, a young woman courier was killed in a hit-and-run in Querétaro. On February 18th, Edwin Eduardo Galván Salas was hit in Mexico City. He was declared brain dead several days later. On March 10th, motorcyclist Luis Alberto Cárdenas Hernández was killed in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco.

Most recently, Rappi courier Ximena Callejas, 20, was killed in a hit-and-run while biking in Mexico City on May 4th. Many delivery people work for both applications, switching back and forth depending on demand.

The sign at a protest of Uber Eats and Rappi couriers reads “This could be your child.”
Protestors call for drivers to respect cyclists.

Food delivery workers have been killed beyond Mexico. In Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Sydney, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Spain, couriers have been killed while working for apps like Uber Eats, Glovo, Caviar, and Rappi. In Argentina and Chile, Uber Eats and Rappi riders have organized and are pushing for legislation to protect their labor rights. The grievances are shared with Mexican workers: unstable wages, a lack of health insurance, and the risk of injury or death.

Nonfatal crashes have also been commonplace for Uber Eats couriers in Mexico: broken arms, clavicles, noses, and near-amputations. Injuries aren’t the only risk of riding through Mexican cities at all hours; Uber Eats workers have had their motorcycles and bicycles destroyed in crashes and been robbed at gunpoint when making deliveries. Earnings are meager, despite the risks: most deliveries in Mexico City net between 30 and 60 pesos ($1.58 to $3.17).

In Mexico, there are 13.1 traffic deaths per 100,000 people

Signing up is easy: workers only have to download the app, register at a local office, and have a bicycle or motorcycle. Within days, they can start receiving orders through the app. Their neon green backpacks are now ubiquitous in Mexico City, as couriers zip from restaurants to apartments and office buildings. It’s easy to order from Uber Eats, but dangerous to deliver. In Mexico, there are 13.1 traffic deaths per 100,000 people. That’s higher than the US, where 12.4 people die in crashes for every 100,000. Most developed countries have even lower rates; in Canada, there are just 5.8 traffic fatalities per 100,000.

In February 2017, Uber began offering insurance for delivery trips in Mexico to cover medical costs of injuries and death.

The Verge spoke with eight Uber Eats riders in Mexico who have been injured on the job. Five of them sought compensation through Uber’s insurance policy. None of them have received it. The families of deceased Uber Eats couriers have turned to their co-workers for financial help while waiting for the company to deliver. Some couriers incurred massive debt and spent months recovering from injuries sustained while working for Uber Eats.

Uber launched in summer 2013 in Mexico City; Uber Eats launched there in 2016. Mexico City’s notorious traffic made it a logical target for food delivery apps. Unlike in the US, most food delivery options were small, local businesses. Uber Eats was able to grow rapidly, thanks to the company’s name recognition and ample advertising budget. Uber Eats now operates in 33 Mexican cities. Uber declined to give specific statistics for Mexico, but said that worldwide there are 300,000 Uber Eats “delivery partners.” Uber Eats has also helped the company expand into Mexican markets where local authorities have blocked their ride-hailing service, like Oaxaca and Cancún.

The majority of Mexican workers work informally in jobs that are not regulated or taxed, like being a street vendor. Wages in these jobs are unpredictable and benefits are nonexistent.

Uber Eats couriers are considered “service providers” under Mexican labor law, which means they have no recourse to recoup lost earnings, receive disability payments, or receive employer-sponsored health care. Couriers are not registered for social security and Uber can kick them off the app with no warning. As service providers, it is also very difficult for couriers to make a legal case against the company.

As service providers, it’s also very difficult for couriers to make a legal case against the company

Making matters worse, Uber’s operations in Mexico are registered through the subsidiary “Uber BV,” headquartered in the Netherlands. By registering abroad, Uber reduced its tax obligations in Mexico and deterred lawsuits from Mexican service providers.

Uber’s terms and conditions for users in Mexico state that the arbitration of any disputes will take place in Amsterdam. None of the injured couriers interviewed by The Verge had the means to pay for a lawyer to make a claim against the company. They are struggling to pay back hospital bills and keep up with daily expenses.

Uber’s recent IPO filing showed impressive growth for Uber Eats. In 2018, Uber Eats revenue more than doubled to $1.5 billion. The report said that Uber Eats operates in over 500 cities, with planned expansion into the 700 cities where Uber’s driver services are already offered. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has said the company plans to increase cross-promotion between the two apps and generate more ride-hailing users from the food delivery service.

The company needs to be regulated to prevent labor abuses, says Roberto Cruz Peña, a Mexico City labor lawyer. “People are going to continue connecting to the app to make money, even if they have absolutely no labor rights,” he says. “These companies aren’t going to change until the government puts the brakes on them.”

Rosales on his motorcycle in Mexico City

The Uber Eats couriers interviewed by The Verge are barely making ends meet. Others have gone into debt after being injured on the job. Riders who were hit before the insurance policy went into effect, or were unaware of the policy, were also left to cover medical costs.

A pattern emerged in riders’ stories: those who called for help from Uber’s insurance were told their injuries would not be covered, or the insurance company never arrived to the scene of the crash. In Querétaro, Alex Loyola called for help when he was hit by a car, but the insurance representative told him he would have to pay for the tow truck himself. In Mexico City, Raúl Micalco was carrying a delivery when a car hit him, but Uber would not cover his hospital bills for a broken arm. Vicente Solís, of Puebla, called the insurance company when he was hit, but they never showed up. Hector Martínez was hit in Mexico City, and the woman who hit him took him to the hospital when he didn’t get a response from Uber. Marco Antonio Cervantes was attacked while making a delivery. He fought back and was stabbed in the hand, causing permanent nerve damage.

Raúl Micalco was carrying a delivery when a car hit him, but Uber would not cover his hospital bills

Luis Guillermo Castro Reséndiz, 44, started working for Uber Eats in 2017 when he was laid off after 20 years in the Mexican Postal Service. A high school dropout with two children to support, Castro Reséndiz knew his options were limited. He registered for Uber Eats, working seven days a week. During a good week, he brings in 2,500 pesos ($133), which is just enough to make ends meet.

Castro Reséndiz is tall and heavy-built. His gruff voice hides a soft demeanor. He gets off his motorcycle but doesn’t take off the giant green Uber Eats backpack or his black helmet, as if the uniform has now become a part of him.

On January 13th, he made his last delivery of the day, taking his motorcycle to the Iztapalapa borough in southeast Mexico City. Castro Reséndiz dropped off an order of barbecue and then headed home, a half-hour ride away. He was riding north when another motorcycle hit him from behind, throwing him onto the pavement and knocking him unconscious.

After he came to, Castro Reséndiz felt a searing pain in his shoulder. The motorcyclist who hit him refused to pay for the damage to Castro Reséndiz’s motorcycle or medical expenses. He had to call a tow truck for his motorcycle, which was totaled.

At the emergency room, an X-ray revealed that he had a broken clavicle. He called Uber, but the support staff said that because he wasn’t carrying a delivery when the accident happened, the company would not cover his medical expenses. Castro Reséndiz provided screenshots of his messages in the Uber app with the company to The Verge to confirm this.

Castro Reséndiz paid for his medical expenses out of pocket and spent three weeks recuperating. “Since then I haven’t been able to pay off my debts,” he says. “What little money I had saved, I had to spend.”

“What little money I had saved, I had to spend.”

Even though his clavicle wasn’t entirely healed, Castro Reséndiz went back to work. Months later, he still tapes the injury every morning. He takes painkillers to make it through long days riding a rented motorcycle with a heavy backpack.

A few weeks after the accident, Uber called him into the Mexico City offices to share his feedback on the app.

“I told them about the accident,” he says. “All they did was give me a free backpack.”

Despite the hardships, Castro Reséndiz plans to continue working for Uber Eats.

“It’s sad,” he says. “But because I’m not well-educated, I’m stuck in this situation.”

Castro shows the bandage over his clavicle injury, which has not fully healed.
Rosales on his motorcycle in Mexico City

Even before Matías Flores’ death, Mexico City Uber Eats couriers were organizing. Javier Roldan Maldonado, 30, thought that by banding together, they could push the company to increase rates. Maldonado has an expressive face with strong features; his messages on Facebook and WhatsApp are no-nonsense and all-caps.

With a friend, he formed a WhatsApp group called “Desconecte masivo,” (Mass Disconnect) last fall, and added all the Uber Eats couriers he knew. The group quickly swelled to over 200 people.

On November 17th, dozens of delivery workers joined a caravan to Uber’s offices. The couriers presented Uber with a list of 10 demands, including higher nighttime rates, explanations for riders whose accounts were deactivated, and a more comprehensive insurance policy.

The couriers presented Uber with a list of 10 demands

The next action took place on November 29th, calling for justice in Matías Flores’ death. Maldonado says in the months following the accident, Uber Eats couriers gave money to Matías Flores’ family while they waited for help from Uber. “We’re all helping each other because the company and the government. They’re not doing anything to help us,” Maldonado says.

Uber Eats declined to comment on whether Matías Flores’ family had been compensated.

Castro shows his Uber Eats account, recording over 5,000 deliveries

Sometimes support from other couriers is more effective than the insurance policy Uber offers. Last November, Mario Sánchez Rosales, 27, had just picked up a delivery at a Mexico City Hooters when a car hit him. He was knocked to the ground and pinned under his motorcycle. “I couldn’t move my legs and I told the WhatsApp group [of Uber Eats couriers] that I needed help,” he says.

It was 8:30PM. Uber Eats couriers showed up and began negotiating with the driver who had hit him.

Rosales also called the Uber support line, asking for an ambulance. The insurance representative didn’t show up until 11PM, over two hours after he had called for help. Rosales says the representative had him fill out a form and then told him to make a deal with the driver who had hit him.

Rosales is slender, with a close-cut haircut and stylish glasses. He moved to Mexico City from his hometown in Puebla as a teenager and started working to send back money for his younger siblings.

“Even when the conditions are dangerous, you’re enticed to keep working.”

“He told me he couldn’t do anything else to help me,” he says. He’s serious as he recounts the story. Even though Rosales was carrying a delivery to an Uber Eats client, the insurance didn’t cover his injuries. He went to the hospital and paid out of pocket. His Uber Eats colleagues convinced the driver to pay for the damage to his motorcycle.

Jorge Ramírez, 30, says that surge rates motivated him to hop on his motorcycle on a rainy night last April. Working through the downpour, he suddenly lost control of his motorcycle on the slick pavement. He wiped out, breaking his fibula. He spent months recuperating and went into debt to pay his hospital bills.

“Even when the conditions are dangerous, you’re enticed to keep working,” Ramírez says. “But you know the company won’t do anything to help if you get hurt.”

Uber Eats acknowledges that road safety is a problem in Mexico. But the insurance program the company offers to couriers falls short.

Other workers have been a lifeline for those hit by cars. Riders in Puebla donated money to help the family of Hernández Fong, the courier killed there in December. When Edwin Eduardo Galván Salas died in February, couriers visited his mother in Iztapalapa and gave her what money they could. Uber declined to comment on whether any of these families were compensated.

The deaths of five Mexican Uber Eats couriers in the past six months should sound the alarm to improve protections for its workers around the world. But despite the risks of racing by bike or motorcycle through hectic streets, thousands of Mexicans still see Uber Eats as a promising source of income. With little interference from the Mexican government, Uber Eats will continue to grow.

“I appreciate that Uber gave me an opportunity to work,” says Castro Reséndiz, who broke his clavicle earlier this year.

“But at the end of the day, you’re on your own,” he says. “They don’t care if you do 10, 20 deliveries a day. Because there are always new people joining.”

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