Uber drivers cram in fares in countdown to app’s Colombia departure

By Nelson Bocanegra

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Like a race car driver, Karen Londono is competing against the clock. She rests just four hours a day, trying to take as many fares as possible driving for Uber, before the application is deactivated in Colombia.

The company, which has repeatedly clashed with regulators and taxi groups in the Andean country, will stop functioning here from Saturday, leaving drivers like Londono, a single mother of two, worried about making ends meet.

Emboldened by a court ruling in their favor, taxi driver groups have said they will now go after similar apps like Didi, Cabify and Beat, stymieing those drivers who have switched platforms ahead of Uber’s closure.

“They are taking away our ability to make a living and to provide for our children … while knowing that opportunities for work in Colombia are very scarce,” Londono, 26, said.

Mobile apps provide a means to earn for hundreds of thousands of people for whom they are the only source of income. Colombia has one of Latin America’s highest unemployment rates, with joblessness above 10%.

Uber says it has 88,000 drivers in the country, serving more than 2.3 million users.

Experts say the situation with Uber in Colombia reflects the sluggish pace of introducing legislation regarding the needs of new sectors in the economy, such as apps, and traditional ones, such as the extractive industry, which sends a negative message to investors.

“The lack of adequate regulation obviously has an impact on every level, it impacts the users and those trying to work, as well as current and potential investors,” said Alberto Sleshinger, economist and dean at the Sergio Arboleda University. “We are lagging behind.”

Last year the ride-hailer canceled plans to build a $40 million support center in Colombia, citing regulatory uncertainty. Uber said the center, planned to be its third in the region, would have provided 600 jobs.

Regular user Catalina Acosta, 28, said there needs to be an “emergency solution” to avoid Uber’s departure and make sure other applications do not go the same way.

Acosta, an architect and technology entrepreneur, has collected more than half a million signatures through the platform Change.org, which she hopes will persuade the government to provisionally halt the ruling.

“It’s very important that we focus on what citizens want,” she said, adding that Uber’s departure will not be good for Colombian start-ups looking to Silicon Valley’s largest investors – including those which backed Uber – for funding.

The government said it has few options because Uber and similar platforms do not operate within the law.

“We cannot modify laws by decree,” Transport Minister Angela Orozco recently told journalists.

In Davos last week, President Ivan Duque called for a level playing field between technology and traditional businesses, telling Reuters that unfair competition from apps cannot be tolerated.

For lawmaker Mauricio Toro – who proposed an as-yet undebated law to regulate transportation apps – the decision against Uber could cause similar problems for a wide variety of apps.

“This could lead to a tricky situation where, for example, supermarkets start suing companies like Rappi, Merqueo, Mercadoni, Domicilios.com and other platforms,” he told Reuters, referring to popular delivery apps. “It’s opening a way to ostracize technology.”

(Reporting by Nelson Bocanegra; Writing by Oliver Griffin, Editing by Franklin Paul)