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Losing Hand, Uber Drivers In Brazil Play Waiting Game

A day in the life of an Uber driver in São Paulo.

Driving in São Paulo
Driving in São Paulo
Leandro Machado

SÃO PAULO — They're sitting around a small table, shoes and shirts off, playing cards. Who's going to be the lucky winner? And who would have wasted their day? Unfortunately for the players, their card game isn't the subject of this report.

The cards are just a distraction for these Uber drivers, who sometimes wait for up to 12 hours for customers at the São Paulo–Guarulhos International Airport, where an average of 370 flights land daily. Hundreds of cars wait in three areas near the airport each day: one stretch of land behind a hotel, in the streets of a nearby neighborhood that has social housing, and in the parking lot of a public hospital.

Paulo Diniz, 38, became an Uber driver a year-and-a-half ago. On a recent Tuesday, he arrived at the field behind the hotel at 6.15 a.m., hoping to get a customer who would make his day, and the wait, worthwhile. On his smartphone's screen, the app indicates his position in the virtual waiting line. It reads "+200." This means there are at least 200 drivers ahead of him. He'll have to wait his turn to get a customer. "I could be number 201 or 500. The app only shows this +200 at best," he says.

At 7 a.m., Cristiano Gomes, 37, reaches the site and parks his car. His screen shows the same number as Paulo's — +200. He takes off his shoes, lowers his seat and sleeps. Others come later, like 23-year-old Yuri Pinho, who doesn't show up until 10 a.m. When he does, he walks directly to the playing table.

Is the wait worth it? Well, it depends. Financially, it may or may not be worth waiting the whole day at the airport. When drivers park in the "waiting areas," they dream of long journeys into São Paulo state or to cities in Greater São Paulo — rides that would bring in more than 100 reais ($32) net — Uber keeps 25% of all costs.

"I once took a passenger for 140 reais," says Carlos Pavoa, 22, as he eats a meal from one of the food places that opened here after the waiting area had developed. "But the other day, I waited for six hours to, in the end, drive someone for just 22 reais ($7). I was pissed off," Yuri says.

That's the risk. You can be very unlucky and wait for hours until, finally, your turn comes for a short, and not very lucrative, ride. Journeys to central São Paulo, for instance, are of little interest to drivers, who will earn 35 reais on average. Those who think it's still worth the wait argue that, as long as they're parked, they're not spending any fuel. When a good ride comes, if it comes at all, it makes up for the time lost waiting.

"If I drive in the center of São Paulo, I use a lot of gasoline for rides worth just 10 reais," says Paulo Diniz. "Here, it might take time before I can earn anything but the overall cost is lower." By midday, the app finally shows a different number on his screen: between 180 and 190 (again, his exact wait in line isn't shown).

These Uber drivers have come up with strategies to limit the risks of bad luck. Before deciding whether to take a ride, most of them call the user and ask for their destination. If they consider it too much hassle for too little money, they either make up an excuse about a problem with their car or they simply stay put. It's a way of pressuring the customer, who's looking to move quickly, into canceling the ride. That way, the driver doesn't have to do a short and cheap ride, he doesn't lose his spot in the waiting line and he doesn't suffer a dip in his approval ratings. It doesn't even affect his own cancel ratio on the app.

This report was able to confirm twice over the last few days that this strategy is sometimes used. In one of these two cases, we requested a ride to the city center from a street near the airport. The driver called and asked where we'd be going. He called back after a few minutes, saying, "It's gonna be a while until I get there. If you want to cancel..."

Drivers who live near the "waiting areas' complain that they hardly get any requests. Any Uber driver automatically ends up in the virtual waiting line as soon as he enters these areas. Since drivers waiting here don't usually accept calls from people who aren't at the airport, it's a source of prejudice for both local drivers and customers.

I'd already lost the entire day so I accepted

Contacted for this report, Uber said it has reduced the waiting area near the airport to make it easier for local residents to be able to request the service. The company says it can't change the wait time and sends messages to drivers telling them "it's not worth waiting for hours." The ride-hailing service also says that 45 drivers have been "deactivated" this week alone for having cheated.

While they wait behind the hotel, drivers play domino or card games. They use toilets for 1.50 reais. A tap in a nearby park provides them with drinking water. At night, a new shift starts for those who prefer to wait for the early morning flights. Some prostitutes also come here to work.

It's now 3 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon and Paulo Diniz has almost reached position 40 in the virtual waiting line. Cristiano Gomes, who had taken a nap in his car, is in the 80s. For Yuri Pinho, however, the app still shows the position +200. An hour-and-a-half later, Paulo finally gets a call from a passenger. He's been waiting for more than 10 hours. The user wants to be driven to western São Paulo. "I thought about refusing, but I'd already lost the entire day so I accepted," he says. For that ride, he'll earn 80 reais ($25).

Cristiano only gets a call at 7 p.m. after a 12-hour wait. His ride earns him 50 reais ($16). "What do you wanna do? We don't get to choose..."

As for Yuri, who parked behind the hotel at 10 a.m., it's 9:54 p.m. when he sees that he is finally among the first in line. He's hoping for a good ride.

Bad luck. The app crashes.

When Yuri manages to relaunch it a minute later, he's back at the end of the line. The next day, on the phone, he explains how he reacted. "My friend, I wept like a child."

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