Uber may get a bad rap in the US and in most of the world when it comes to drivers sexually assaulting women, but in Argentina the ride-sharing app may help decrease the country's sky-high rate of cab-side sexual harassment and violence.
On average, 99 cases of sexual assault perpetrated by taxi drivers are reported to police every month in the Greater Buenos Aires Area, Javier Miglino, a lawyer and founder of NGO Let's Defend Buenos Aires (Defendamos Buenos Aires), told Motherboard.
"That can range from 'simple' sexual assault, meaning kissing or touching someone against their will, to rape," Miglino said.
He claims there's been an "exponential" increase in reports over the last 10 years, but that could just be indicative of women feeling more comfortable speaking up. 80 percent of reported attacks take place on the weekends, he said, "typically to girls who've gone out dancing and hail cabs in the morning," and 20 percent late weeknight evenings, "to young women returning home from university." Most Argentine college students juggle full-time employment and school, so classes often run until late at night to accommodate their schedules.
"Many taxi drivers think they're above the law," Miglino told me. Basically, if they can't get away with murder, they apparently think they can with a bit of fondling here and there. Though even that's up for debate: last year, a cab driver stabbed a woman to death in a cafe after she asked him to stop stalking her. His lawyer is "pleading insanity" to make him immune from prosecution and Miglino says he has high chances of getting off the hook.
Miglino blames taxi driver unions' "political and judicial impunity"—the unions are freakishly powerful, as evidenced by massive government support—as well as a pretty insane lack of regulation.
"A person with a taxi license can legally rent out his cab to anyone he wants for a few hours. So a single taxi can easily be passed around three or four people in a given day," he explained. It's cheaper for the owner of a taxi company to pay a few guys a couple of hours a day than employ someone full time.
Sure enough, anyone who's ever hopped in a taxi in Buenos Aires will tell you that the person behind the wheel often isn't the person pictured on a laminated ID hung from the driver's seat. Tack on a culture of rampant machismo (chauvinism), and voilà: the stage is set for an uncomfortable ride.
"Cab drivers here are infamous for the ways they fuck you over, overcharging you, taking you around the block, and making you feel unsafe as a woman," Josefin Ekner, a Swedish expat living in Buenos Aires, told me.
You'll be hard pressed to find a woman in Buenos Aires who hasn't had to sit through a cab ride worth of piropos (pick up lines) or worse, as Buenos Aires native Coni Gueglio confirmed.
"One time, I fell asleep in a taxi and I woke up with the cab driver's hand on my leg. I've also been in situations in which drivers have commented on the way I'm dressed, or what they would do if they were with a girl my age or like me, or they've talked about sexual situations with their wives or partners, which, as you can imagine, when you're inside a moving car, is incredibly uncomfortable and uncalled for," she told me.
Enter Uber. The US-based company has been operating illegally in Buenos Aires since April. And despite local taxi unions' best efforts to scare the ride-sharing giant away—intimidation tactics include throwing rocks at Uber offices and stuffing effigies of Uber drivers in taxi trunks—the service keeps thriving. According to figures the company released in September, the app has been downloaded by more than 500,000 people and around 37,000 drivers are registered to work for it in the Argentine capital. In fact, last month a ruling decriminalized Uber activity here.
Some women told me that because Uber drivers depend on positive passenger feedback, they feel safer stepping into an Uber than into a taxi with a driver who may or may not even hold that taxi's license.
"I think it's really important that there be some kind of platform that allows you to comment or give your opinion on the service. And Uber and other services work well for those reasons: you can rate drivers and describe the situations you've been in," Coni said.
When Motherboard reached out to Uber, a spokesperson was quick to point out the company's "two-way accountability."
"All Uber rides are GPS-tracked from start to finish. This is key because drivers and passengers know that there is a record of the trip should something happen," the Uber spokesperson said.
"You can also share the details of each individual trip in real time, including your route and ETA, with family or friends," the spokesperson added. "Our safety team reviews this information and temporarily blocks rider/driver accounts if anything dangerous or inappropriate is reported."
Another ride-sharing platform, Spain-based Cabify, is poised to enter the Argentine market in the near future. Perhaps the added competition will raise the stakes and force all companies to provide better service. Or at least hold off on harassing women.