Chlorine attacks and daily harassment: why Mexico’s female delivery drivers are organising | Women’s rights and gender equality

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It was 10am in Mexico City on 24 February this year, and the heat from the morning sun was beginning to impose itself on the sprawling capital.

Berline Augustin, a food delivery driver originally from Haiti, had driven for more than an hour from her home in the outskirts of the capital to the fashionable barrio of Roma Norte, where there is plenty of food to be delivered to the affluent. She was waiting to get an order, when a fellow repartidor pulled up alongside and threw chlorine at her.

“I felt it burning against my clothes,” Augustin says. It narrowly missed touching her skin directly. Augustin, 23, has no doubts why this violent attack happened – it was another example of the misogynistic aggression that female delivery drivers, especially non-Mexicans, face every day from colleagues, customers and the restaurant staff from whom they collect the food.

The man is part of a group of fellow drivers who often heckle her and other women with the claims that they get more work, and tips, than them. “Its not true. I wake up early: that’s why I get a lot of orders. They tell us we should be at home with our children, but I don’t have children!”

Augustin says she is regularly subjected to racist remarks from the male repartidors, while some ask how much sex would cost. She rarely responds and did not consider reporting her attacker because she believed nothing would be done. She is also cognisant of her foreign national status. “This is not my country,” she says.

Unta gender secretary Shaira Garduño and union member Yurexhi Valdivieso Rojas, both delivery drivers, stand outside the Puntos Naranja with their bikes
The National Union of App Workers (Unta) gender secretary, Shaira Garduño, and union member Yurexhi Valdivieso Rojas, both delivery drivers, outside the punto naranja safe space in Mexico City. Photograph: Bex Griffin/The Guardian

On another occasion, a man wearing only boxer shorts opened the door to her to collect his sushi with his penis visibly erect. But Augustin says that despite reporting the incident she received little support from the company. “They’re not going to lose a customer because of a delivery driver,” she says.

To find more avenues for support, this year she joined the National Union of App Workers (Unta), which represents workers for four major food delivery firms, and other companies, in Mexico. The union campaigns to regularise the status of its members as workers, which would see them obtain basic employment rights, and to defend female workers.

A report this year by Fairwork, an academic project scrutinising the gig economy, says that many female app workers in Mexico face “constant sexual harassment from staff of affiliated establishments, during their working hours on public roads, and by service users”.

Three-quarters portrait of Kruskaya Hidalgo standing in the street.
Kruskaya Hidalgo, co-author of the Fairwork report and a union organiser at the Solidarity Center, which supports the delivery app workers’ union Unta. Photograph: Bex Griffin/The Guardian

Women told the researchers that they had been “confronted with requests for sexual acts when making home deliveries”. Some men open the door entirely naked to collect their deliveries, according to Shaira Garduño, the gender secretary at Unta, which was founded in 2020 and now says it has more than 700 members nationwide. Garduño says she knows of men masturbating in taxis driven by female drivers, and a delivery driver who was taken hostage for several days and sexually abused.

Other drivers are known to have been asked for sexual favours by the police to resolve alleged traffic infractions. So it is no wonder so few are prepared to make official complaints to the authorities. “There is no culture of reporting to the police here in Mexico, because we know that the justice system doesn’t work,” says Sergio Guerrero, Unta’s general secretary.

Last year, reform proposals backed by Unta that would have classified app workers as employees hit a brick wall, which condemned half a million workers, a tenth of them women, to continued insecurity – with no support if they get hurt in an accident or become pregnant. “If you don’t have a contract, then federal labour laws do not protect you,” says Guerrero.

Like other delivery and taxi drivers in the gig economy across the world, such workers in Mexico are considered business partners, or socios. But the situation in Mexico is worse than in some other countries because non-contracted workers do not get basic social security benefits. On average, app drivers earn about $500 (£396) a month from long working weeks, leaving many families in poverty in the increasingly expensive Mexican capital.

Unta gender secretary Shaira Garduño points to a sticker on her bike that says por un movimiento sindical con equidad de genero – for a union movement with gender equality
Garduño points to a sticker on her bike that says ‘Por un movimiento sindical con equidad de genero’ (for a union movement with gender equality). Photograph: Bex Griffin/The Guardian

The anger over these injustices is being channelled into the growing union movement – emboldened by the 2019 rewriting of the North American Free Trade Agreement – to make it far easier for independent unions to operate. In Mexico City, in October, representatives of unions from seven Latin American countries demanded greater action from the app companies against gendered violence, as well as algorithmic transparency. “We are discriminated workers fighting against two monsters: politicians and platforms,” Angélica Salgado, national adviser at the Workers’ United Center of Chile, told local media.

“The app companies do little to protect women, even when they make complaints,” says Garduño. “Our female members are regularly intimidated and insulted in the street in the course of their work.”

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Recently she had a brainwave, leading to the opening, in October, of the union’s first punto naranjaa place where female delivery drivers can rest and replenish during shifts, charge their devices, use the toilet and meet other drivers. Crucially, it is also a place where workers can seek help from the union in the event of harassment, or worse.

A group of male and female drivers stand together with their fists held up, outside a restaurant.
Drivers, organisers, union members and friends meet to chat, organise and eat at the punto naranja, housed inside a Venezeualan restaurant. Photograph: Bex Griffin/The Guardian

Unta opened another this November and is planning four more in other cities before the end of the year, modelled on safe spaces for women at risk elsewhere in the country. “Now colleagues have a place to go in case of harassment, or simply to use the bathroom,” Garduño says.

The union is calling on the delivery app companies to follow its lead and set up monitored hubs across the city where female drivers can wait for orders free from harassment.

“In the absence of truly pro-women initiatives from the government and the platforms, the punto naranja sends the message that positive actions can easily be taken,” says Kruskaya Hidalgo, co-author of the Fairwork report and a union organiser at the Solidarity Center, which supports Unta.

In the absence of corporate support, workers strive to protect each other. In Merida, dozens of female drivers track each other’s locations while they work, in case of danger. “In the face of the discrimination and violence faced by women platform workers, a support and companionship network becomes fundamental,” Hidalgo and her co-authors wrote of the group, who call themselves Círculo Violeta – the Violet Circle.

An Unta flyer calls on people to defend their rights and join the union, outlining that it provides emergency vehicle support, legal assistance and other services.
An Unta flyer calls on people to defend their rights and join the union, outlining that it provides emergency vehicle support, legal assistance and other services. Photograph: Bex Griffin/The Guardian

Back at the punto naranja in Mexico City, Augustin – who arrived in Mexico five years ago and ran deliveries on a bicycle, then a moped, before being able to buy a motorbike – is telling her colleagues about her plans to become a nurse. One day a week, she studies at a local college – funding herself with the little she has spare from her delivery earnings. “It’s been my dream to be a nurse since I was little: I love helping people, and I love children. But I still have a long way to go. There’s a lot of work to do.”

Additional reporting by Philippa Kelly

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