Prosperity or Precarity? Driving for Uber in Brazil

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Student Research Reports, Summer 2018

The author under an Uber advertisement in the São Paulo international airport. Uber advertises passenger safety with its rating system; however, drivers often worry for their own safety.  (Photo courtesy of Heather Regen.)
The author under an Uber advertisement in the São Paulo international airport. Uber advertises passenger safety with its rating system; however, drivers often worry for their own safety.  (Photo courtesy of Heather Regen.)

Prosperity or Precarity? Driving for Uber in Brazil
By Heather Regen

Technology-driven contract jobs take both credit and blame for disrupting industries and traditional work in the United States; however, informal employment has long been the norm in many other countries. Policymakers worry about this type of employment because for governments, informality means a smaller tax base and less ability to ensure social protections for some of the most vulnerable citizens. For workers, informal jobs often translate into lower earnings and higher risks. A substantial share of Brazilian workers—around 40 to 60 percent, depending on metrics—fall into the informal sector. Given informality’s normalcy and a backdrop of economic crisis, what does driving for Uber mean in Brazil? The Tinker award allowed me to introduce fieldwork into previous desk-based research. Last semester, I analyzed Brazilian policy and regulatory frameworks for transport network companies like Uber. This summer, I conducted on-the-ground interviews to get a (quite literal) street-level view of employment conditions for Uber drivers in São Paulo. I found that while driving for Uber in São Paulo is not lucrative when adjusting for hours worked, it is also not especially precarious in terms of income earned—more so when drivers decide not to report earnings. The greatest risk driving is the threat of assault, especially at night and in the periphery of the city. Many drivers began working with Uber when they were let off, but some chose to switch jobs from formal but low-quality employment. While this research employed a small sample of qualitative interviews, future studies could use larger-sample surveys to further examine the lives and work of app-based contract workers in Brazil. These findings will allow policymakers to better understand current informal employment dynamics and to better regulate app-based contract companies. 

Uber advertisements cover the entirety of this São Paulo airport exit, telling passengers where to wait for an app-hailed ride. (Photo by Heather Regen.)
Uber advertisements cover the entirety of this São Paulo airport exit, telling passengers where to wait for an app-hailed ride. (Photo by Heather Regen.)

The ride-hailing app 99 competes with Uber in Brazil. This advertisement announces: "Riders, pay less; Drivers, earn more. 99 is better for everyone." Where Uber takes a fluctuating 25 to more than 50 percent of drivers' earnings, 99 currently takes a flat commission of 13 percent per ride.  (Photo by Heather Regen.)
The ride-hailing app 99 competes with Uber in Brazil. This advertisement announces: "Riders, pay less; Drivers, earn more. 99 is better for everyone." Where Uber takes a fluctuating 25 to more than 50 percent of drivers' earnings, 99 currently takes a flat commission of 13 percent per ride.  (Photo by Heather Regen.) 

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