Uber Delivery Workers in Mexico Are Tracking Thieves Through Google Maps and WhatsApp Networks

A 1,000-person WhatsApp community keeps delivery workers safe

Illustration: Glenn Harvey

OnOn a recent Tuesday night, Luisa Amezquita, a Rappi company delivery worker, was headed home after her last drop-off of the evening when her motorcycle broke down. She was miles from home, and nervous. So she reached out for the only help she could think of.

“Is anyone awake? I’ve been trying to get home since 10 p.m. and still I haven’t made it,” she texted to a WhatsApp group of women food delivery workers in Mexico City. Stephanie Rojas, who manages the WhatsApp group, started making phone calls.

Rojas contacted Saúl Gómez of the collective Ni un repartidor menos (Not one more delivery worker killed), who sent out alerts to other WhatsApp groups of cyclists and motorcyclists around the city to look for Luisa. Shortly after sending her S.O.S., Luisa had gone silent — she wasn’t picking up calls or answering messages. Ni un repartidor menos’ members, who deliver for Uber Eats, Rappi, DiDi, and Sin Delantal, started looking for a woman pushing a motorcycle.

Finally, around 9 a.m., she came back online. Her phone had died just after sending her distress message, but she had made it home safe.

Delivery workers across Mexico are under severe pressure. Fatal crashes are a known risk, and reports of robberies are practically a daily occurrence. To protect themselves and each other, delivery workers are turning to messaging apps and social networks to document grievances and rally for change.

To feel safe while making risky deliveries, workers are more likely to depend on each other than company staff on a hotline.

Rappi, DiDi, and Uber offer support hotlines that delivery people can call if they are injured or have a problem with a client. Sin Delantal offers a chat service. Uber and Rappi both have insurance plans that cover medical expenses and life insurance in certain cases, and an Uber spokesperson tells OneZero that safety is a top priority. “We invest in protections including in-app features, road-safety partnerships, and robust insurance coverage to protect delivery partners as they earn flexible income. All Uber Eats delivery trips in Mexico — whether by bike, motorbike, or car — are insured against injury, permanent disability, and death at no additional cost.”

But workers say that companies do not always take their concerns seriously, often redirecting them to a chat box or email. And the constant pressure to make more deliveries exacerbates safety risks: If a worker cancels a delivery because they feel unsafe, their rating in the application can drop. To feel safe while making risky deliveries, workers are more likely to depend on each other than company staff on a hotline.

Interviews with six delivery workers outline how these workers use smartphones to collect data about crashes, injuries, harassment, and robberies. They monitor each other in real time using WhatsApp when making deliveries in neighborhoods with high crime rates. They also collaborate to make Google Maps indicating the location of past robberies and addresses to avoid.

These workers face a precarious existence, both in the street and in the eyes of the law. “Until labor law recognizes us, we’re nobody in the eyes of the government,” says Gómez. “It’s worth it to know that I am helping my friends to make deliveries and get home safe at the end of the night.”

FFrom Mexico City to Cancun and Chihuahua to Oaxaca, food delivery applications have descended on Mexico. Uber Eats, Colombian-owned Rappi, Chinese-owned DiDi, and Sin Delantal have given thousands of people the chance to hop on a bike or motorcycle and start delivering.

But risks abound. Delivery workers have been robbed at gunpoint and killed in crashes. Women delivery workers face harassment from clients and restaurant staff.

Around the country, murder rates are on the rise. Mexico City saw 1,421 homicides in 2018, the highest of any year on record. Kidnappings and disappearances are also common. And 94% of crimes reported in Mexico City are never solved. Delivery workers often feel that authorities are unable to offer them protection.

Eduardo Vargas Escobar, a labor organizer with the Solidarity Center in Mexico, says that, platform-based drivers and delivery people in Mexico are categorized as independent contractors, just as in the United States. That means they are ineligible for state or employer-funded health care, have no paid time off, and can be disconnected from their application of employment with no advance warning.

“No one talks about the well-being of the drivers, because the company doesn’t recognize them as workers,” Vargas said by phone. “Who supports them? They support each other.”

The same can be said for delivery workers, who are forced to turn to each other to address the hazards of their jobs.

OnOn November 27, 2018, a truck hit and killed José Manuel Matías Flores while he was making an Uber Eats delivery. Two days later, delivery workers held a protest outside the Mexico City police headquarters.

“A lot of us met each other for the first time at the protest,” says Gómez, a delivery worker who had rushed to the scene of Matías’ accident. Gómez, who has worked for Rappi and Uber Eats for three years, says that during the protest, delivery workers created a WhatsApp group to stay in contact. (A recent study estimated that 93% of all internet users in Mexico use the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messenger app.)

Over the course of the next year, the group evolved into some combination of emergency helpline, support network, and digital water cooler known as Ni un repartidor menos.

Today, the collective manages four different WhatsApp groups in Mexico City, with close to 1,000 members, according to Gómez. Each WhatsApp group has up to 250 members who share location information, photographs, and audio messages. Riders use cell phones to document accidents or abuse from restaurant staff and clients.

A bike sticker and the words “Comrade en route” mean a rider is making a dangerous delivery.

Members of the WhatsApp groups have developed codes to communicate on the platform. A red siren sticker indicates a member has been hit or witnessed an accident. A bike sticker and the words “Comrade en route” mean a rider is making a dangerous delivery. Uber drivers in the country use a similar system, sending an eyes emoji to alert others that they feel at risk when taking on a passenger.

Ni un repartidor menos also maintains a Google Document to register workers’ contact information and vital stats. Each worker in the registry is given a number, which they write in permanent marker on their delivery backpack. In an emergency, a collective member can find their name and emergency contacts.

Antonio Moreno, 24, who runs a Facebook page of delivery-inspired memes — Malditos ciclistas/deliverys — created an often-used Google Map that warns where delivery workers have been robbed. The Google Map recently crashed, but Moreno is gradually re-populating it.

Moreno, who previously worked at a call center, says he enjoys riding his bike all day and exploring the city. “I’d like to work like this all my life,” he said. “But you run a lot of risks.”

Stephanie Rojas joined Ni un repartidor menos in May 2019, after Rappi delivery worker Ximena Callejas was killed in a collision with a tractor trailer on May 4.

“She was killed really close to my house,” Rojas said. “It could have been me.”

Rojas, a single mother, wakes up early to help her 12-year-old son get ready for school. Then she’s off to make deliveries around the city. She says it is better than her old job as a bartender, which left her exhausted and sleeping through the daylight hours.

This summer, she started a WhatsApp group specifically for women delivery workers where they can document sexual harassment on the job. Some women delivery workers report clients opening the door in boxers, or naked. Others say that restaurant staff will save their phone numbers to text them after picking up a delivery.

Rojas works to educate other delivery workers and create safe spaces for women to speak up.

“Some people say I am exaggerating, that it’s not a real problem,” she said, referring to harassment. “But it’s a reality. Just the fact of being women and going out to work, we are already in danger.”

JJamie Woodcock, a London-based sociologist with the Open University who has studied delivery worker conditions around the world, says “in the Global North, [the gig economy] is experienced as a deterioration of worker rights. But in the Global South, many people are moving out of the informal economy into these jobs.”

That’s the case in Mexico, where precarity is already the norm for most workers. As of August 2019, 56% of Mexican workers were part of the informal sector, with no minimum wage protections or benefits. In a country where the minimum wage is just 102 pesos a day ($5.30), driving for Uber or delivering for Rappi can be an attractive job prospect.

But these workers often have no one to turn to when things go wrong.

“Companies usually have supervisors, managers, a whole layer of people to mediate disputes,” Woodcock said. “[But on these platforms] things go from 0 to 100 straight away because there isn’t any form of mediation.”

Delivery workers can call support hotlines if they feel unsafe, and ask to cancel a delivery. But the hotline staff make the final decision. If a worker cancels an order, the app will dock their rating, meaning they could lose future jobs. Delivery workers have also expressed frustration that the staff of the Rappi support line are based in Colombia and therefore do not understand the particular risk in Mexico City.

Uber Eats covers medical expenses if a delivery worker is injured while making a delivery, though not while waiting for orders to come in. Uber’s app also features an emergency 911 button. But Gómez and Vargas said that the city police aren’t much help and often blame the delivery people for disputes. In a widely circulated video in November 2018, police officers physically restrain an Uber Eats delivery worker after he was hit by a car.

Even without government recognition, the delivery workers of Mexico City are making some progress in getting Rappi and Uber Eats to respond to their demands.

OneZero also reached out to DiDi Mexico, Sin Delantal, and Rappi for comment, but those companies did not respond.

To better advocate for these changes in Mexico, a group of workers formed the Independent Delivery Application Union (SIRA). But before they can be legally recognized as a union, Mexican courts will have to reclassify delivery people as workers rather than contractors.

Delivery workers have made attempts to organize around the world. In Argentina and the U.K., delivery people have organized work stoppages. In the U.K., Deliveroo workers protested when their base hourly wage was replaced in favor of a fee per delivery. In Mendoza, Argentina, Glovo workers stopped delivering for a day this July to protest a similar change.

EEven without government recognition, the delivery workers of Mexico City are making some progress in getting Rappi and Uber Eats to respond to their demands, which includes medical expense coverage and just cause explanation when booting workers from the platform.

Gómez takes the most egregious stories from the WhatsApp groups and shares them on Ni un repartidor meno’s Facebook and Twitter pages, attracting the attention of Mexican media. The collective has also had meetings with Rappi and Sin Delantal.

The group believes they’re improving conditions for workers. In August, Uber Eats deliverer Birgilio Martínez was hit by a drunk driver. Doctors had to amputate his right leg above the knee. When his family learned that they would have to pay all the medical expenses out of pocket and later be reimbursed — something they could not afford — the collective publicized the story. Uber Mexico told OneZero that as Martínez’s prognosis developed and insurance coverage was confirmed, the insurer started making direct payments for medical care.

The victories are incremental, but Rojas says that being part of an organized workforce helps her feel safe on the job.

“If the day comes that I need help, I know someone will help me,” she said. “If I’m run over, someone will be out looking for me. I am not going to be another disappeared woman in the city.”

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