Thousands of taxi drivers refused to pick up passengers, clogged up city streets, and disrupted traffic today across Colombia in coordinated protests against the ongoing use of ride-hailing apps like Uber and the general conditions they face as a labor group.
The strike was most pronounced in Bogotá, where more than 1,000 drivers protested, but thousands more participated in at least 20 cities throughout the country, including Medellín, Cali, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, and Manizales.
Rather than operate normally, protesting drivers instead wrote messages like “Leave Uber” and “Leave Pirates” on their car windows and joined together in caravans to drive through the city streets at a turtle’s pace to worsen congestion. Others marched on foot with banners including statements such as “No More” and “Corruption.”
Reports in various cities reported low-level altercations in the streets, but the day’s events occurred largely without major incident. At least one taxi driver in Medellín who was carrying a passenger and not participating in the protest had his car hit with eggs thrown by a driver on strike.
The general position of the various unions throughout the country is that Uber is illegal and should be shut down, a stance that certain public officials have agreed with in the past even as the U.S.-based company continues to operate openly in many locations across Colombia.
Uber says that it is not a taxi service but rather a technology company that connects service providers with those seeking a ride. This has provided the shield for the company to continue existing in the country, as it has done in many nations throughout the world where local driver unions have complained.
Providing a taxi service without license is illegal in Colombia, however, so those working for the market-disrupting company are not permitted to operate entirely freely. Many Uber drivers have had their license revoked after being caught operating a for-hire cab service illicitly. In Bogotá, many have also been hit with large fines. But the enforcement of regulations is not consistently applied by police, and it is difficult for authorities to know if a normal-appearing car is actually an Uber car in disguise.
For their part, Uber drivers try to obscure their business motives given that both police officers and taxi drivers have been known to harass anyone seen providing the service. In Bogotá, Uber drivers almost universally request that passengers sit next to them in the front seat so that the car appears to hold everyday commuters.
Jorge Guerrero, president of the taxi driver union in the coastal city of Barranquilla (Sinchotaxis), told Caracol Radio that the aim of the protest is to force mayors with a “lack of commitment” to begin to “enforce the law” and thereby “defeat the informality and illegality that are killing the taxi union.”
In addition to the sheer amount of business that the taxi drivers believe Uber is taking from them, unions have said it is unfair that their members have to pay high fees to operate legally while those working for Uber continue to operate as their competition without such burden.
Several protesters created posters to annotate the various costs they say they have to pay each year. The quoted sum on one poster totaled nearly $1,200 USD in insurance, taxes, inspection fees, and other requirements.
Bogotá Mayor Enrique Penalosa said today that he understands the grievances of the taxi drivers, specifically mentioning the issue of fees, according to Blu Radio. “Yes, they have inequalities,” said the mayor. “They have to pay high fees…while Uber is operating without these types of payments.”
But the embattled mayor also said that those in the traditional sector could stand to improve their service by embracing tech innovations. Paying by credit card and GPS tracking would be welcome additions to their business model, according to the mayor, and there is no doubt that the perception of better security, due to trip logs and other features, is one of the big reasons many in the capital prefer to use Uber.
Many also appreciate the fare certainty offered by the app. Most everyone in the capital has had disputes with drivers over the expected charge compared to the sum requested when they reach their destination. “There is a lot of manipulation problems in the taxi meters,” said Penalosa today, according to Blu Radio.
Taxi driver union representative Ernesto Sandoval, of Fenalco, today acknowledged the highly unfavorable view that many have of the traditional service providers, especially in the capital. But he said he thinks that problem is more due to “the attitude in providing the service and not the cost,” according to El Tiempo.
In addition to Uber, the rival app Cabify has gained a significant following in the capital. Officially licensed taxi drivers use ride-hailing apps as well, with Tappsi and Easy Taxi both allowing users to call a yellow cab on demand.
Photo: Protesting taxi drivers clogged the streets in Medellín today. (Credit: Loren Moss)