Uber Drivers In Brazil Are Struggling To Break Even On Rides

“It hasn’t been an easy year to drive for Uber in Brazil.”

That’s what Ildo, who asked that his last name be omitted to avoid harming future job prospects, told Motherboard as he drove along the motorway in Vitória da Conquista, a city of 350,000 in Brazil’s impoverished Northeastern region.

“The math isn’t adding up like it used to,” he says, pausing a second to check the Uber app. “Some rides are just not worth it—Uber hasn’t raised our rate for years.”

Ildo is not alone. As fuel prices soar and the Brazilian real plummets, Uber drivers throughout Brazil are struggling to make ends meet and break even on rides. Conversations with seven Uber drivers working in five different states paint a dire picture of an increasingly untenable situation, highlighting how the rideshare giant continues to exploit an oftentimes vulnerable workforce, both in Brazil and elsewhere.

For many drivers in Brazil, Uber initially represented a promise of flexibility in one of the world’s most unequal economies, one which continues to be plagued by instability, corruption, and most recently, the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. It was also a promise that, at least for some, turned out to be a lie.

In 2016, Eduardo Lima de Souza quit his job as a public bus driver in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, to drive for Uber. As a bus driver, Souza—now the president of the App Drivers Association of São Paulo (AMASP)—worked all-day Sunday to Sunday. Driving for Uber, at least at the time, allowed him to spend more time with his family, who he rarely saw.

Back then, Souza drove eight to ten hours a day for Uber, earning him around R$300 Brazilian real ($57 USD) per day after fuel. Now, Souza works 14 to 15 hours a day to earn R$140 Brazilian real ($27 USD), some of which will inevitably be spent on paying off his car, maintenance, and other expenses such as a mobile data plan.

“Uber has not readjusted the base rate that drivers receive per ride, nor the rate per kilometer, since 2015,” Souza told Motherboard over the phone. “Meanwhile, almost 55 percent of our earnings go to buying fuel, which is at its highest price ever.”

The minimum drivers earn per UberX ride in São Paulo, according to Souza, who also sent Motherboard screenshots of ride earnings from the Uber app, is R$5.25 Brazilian real ($1 USD) and the rate per kilometer is R$1.10 ($0.21 USD). These numbers vary by region, however, with the rate per kilometer reaching as low as R$0.94 (~$0.18 USD), according to drivers whom Motherboard spoke to.

In response to a slump in demand from the COVID-19 pandemic, drivers said that Uber began offering passengers UberPromo, a promotion for discounted rides. The minimum drivers receive for these rides is R$3.75 (~$0.72 USD).

“To put it simply, it’s not enough.” Souza said. “We’ve been in dialogue with Uber, but so far it’s mostly just been talk.”

Instead of higher wages, Uber has offered drivers in Brazil and elsewhere free access to Rosetta Stone, an online language learning platform.

In a statement to Motherboard, an Uber spokesperson said they could not produce an average national rate for driver fares because they vary from city to city.

“Uber operates a dynamic and flexible marketplace, which is why we always seek to balance the needs of drivers and the economic reality of consumers who use our app, while helping preserve the balance between drivers on the road and demand that is critical to the platform,” the spokesperson wrote.

They also said the company had launched “several initiatives” to help drivers reduce their costs, such as additional earnings for trips with long pickup distances, as well as a partnership with the Ipiranga Group, a network of gas stations, that offers drivers a permanent 4 percent discount on fuel and up to a 20 percent discount during “special occasions.”

But given that the price of gasoline has increased by 50 percent and pay has remained stagnant, drivers said that Uber’s efforts mean little, especially given rising costs nationwide. In June, Brazil’s inflation rate hit 8.4 percent, a five-year high. While nationally there has been at least a minimal effort to keep wages in line with the rising cost of living—the guaranteed minimum monthly wage has increased by 30 percent since 2015—Uber drivers are considered independent contractors in Brazil, and therefore mostly find themselves at the whim of a company based in Silicon Valley, thousands of miles away.

Another problem lies in the fact that Uber only considers a ride started once a driver has reached the passenger, meaning that the time and distance required to actually get to them goes unpaid. Given the high price of fuel, drivers either make little money or actually lose money if the passenger is far away.

Because of this, Uber drivers are forced to be selective, said Guilherme Avanzi, who spends an average of 16 to 17 hours a day driving for Uber in Paraná, a state in the south of Brazil.

“I’m not going to accept a ride where the passenger is kilometers away, especially during rush hour,” Avanzi told Motherboard. “It’s become a game where you constantly have to be calculating in your head whether a trip makes sense, or whether you’ll be paying to work.”

If a driver doesn’t have the time to do the mental math—usually because they were offered a new ride while driving—they sometimes have to accept first and then cancel later, drivers told Motherboard.

In the past two months, Uber users in Brazil have taken to Twitter and Facebook to complain about long waiting times—up to an hour for some—and frequent cancellations. “The reality for those who ask for an @Uber_Brasil in Fortaleza is this,” one Twitter user wrote above a screenshot of a “Trip Cancelled” notification.

Paulo Xavier is the president of The National Support Front For Autonomous Drivers (FANMA), an organization that fights for app drivers’ rights. He thinks it’s important users understand that the drivers are victims of a company that continues to exploit them; drivers should not be blamed for refusing trips that make them no money.

“Of course we try as best we can not to cancel,” Xavier told Motherboard. “We want to respect the passenger and we realize that some people need our service, but whether refusing or cancelling, the motive is always financial inviability.”

Like Souza, Xavier continues to drive for Uber in Minas Gerais along with other ride-sharing apps. He started driving in 2016, after his small construction company went bankrupt during the height of Brazil’s recession.

“You have to understand, we’re trapped, completely stuck, in this horrible cycle,” Xavier told Motherboard in a phone call. “As costs rise, the money we make per month gets lower and lower, and then we have to work longer and longer hours in order to compensate.”

“Many of us have leased cars or even taken out loans to buy a car to drive for Uber” he added. “We’re still paying those off. We can’t just leave.”

For drivers like Ildo, who joined Uber after losing his job, there is no plan B, especially as the national unemployment rate remains over 14 percent. Nonetheless, some of his colleagues have returned to the smaller towns sprinkled around Vitória da Conquista.

“Uber used to feel like an opportunity,” Ildo said. “Now, many other drivers I know are returning home. It’s not doable for them anymore.”

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