Prosperity or Precarity? Driving for Uber in Brazil


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 protection 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 transportation 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 of 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. 

Heather Regen
Publication date: 
August 30, 2018
Publication type: 
Student Research