Protests have been heating up in Mexico City against Uber, the mammoth ride-sharing start-up worth $40 billion. Hundreds of taxi drivers hit the streets Monday in the Mexican capital demanding regulations be imposed on the company to promote ethical labor standards.
The taxi drivers’ protest leader, Eleazar Romero, addressed the crowd of several hundred drivers who walked off the job and blocked off city traffic. “We are not against technology,” he asserted. “We just want a level playing field, we want everyone to follow the same tax rules we do.” Because the Uber app does not impose upon its “at will” workforce the same stringent regulations, taxes and safety rules that taxi companies do, drivers say it enjoys unfair advantages in the city. The fact that Uber offered a free ride promotion throughout Mexico City during the protest underscored these allegations.
The battle between taxi drivers and Uber is especially potent in Mexico, a country with a recent history of dramatic reforms governing labor and taxis — two sectors that have clashed with Uber repeatedly around the world. Until recently, Mexican taxis were once notorious for extortion, theft and other nightmares, many of which involved “unofficial” drivers hailed by unsuspecting riders. Years of policies — including painting all taxies bright pink to easily distinguish them from criminal entrepreneurs — targeted the problems with the industry. These initiatives were relatively successful, and taxi operations seemed poised to become a normalized sector. Uber sets no such constraints for its drivers or vehicles. Safety issues have arisen involving predatory drivers in countries like India, and concerns involving Uber’s dodging of civic accountability and labor justice have attracted criticism as well.
Additionally, the so-called “at will” non-employment model that Uber champions is a concept Mexicans may be more dubious of than their international counterparts. Uber has defended its model of using “contractors” rather than employees as a structure that allows flexibility for drivers. Many analysts are skeptical of this claim, and have argued that Uber’s ideal of “flexibility” is in actuality a dystopian hellscape that forces people to cobble together piecemeal existences to spare empoyers the trouble of paying for normal jobs. Mexican workers might be sympathetic to the latter case: in 2012, Mexico passed a set of comprehensive labor reforms that pushed back against models of employment that devalued labor and harmed workers, like banning freelance positions without benefits, and demanding that employers support their workforces. For those with memories of the worker abuses under the previous system, it’s only natural to be pessimistic about business practices like Uber’s.
The Mexican taxi drivers chanting “Uber Out!” in Mexico City are only the latest pro-labor protest against Uber, a company widely seen as the leader in the effort to usher in a “post-employment” landscape that many see as a serious existential threat to security within the working class. From Italy to South Africa, the battle is being waged within legislatures and courts. But these policies obviously vary by jurisdiction, and Uber has the deep pockets needed to sustain all the lawsuits.