Author: Gabriel Dunatov
Uber’s dramatic rise has been nothing short of a revolution. Founded in San Francisco in 2009, the app is now usable in 60 countries and 300 cities. In 2014, it had approximately eight million active members giving over a million rides a day. Soon, Uber is expected to be valued at $50 billion. Its accessibility and affordability have made it enormously popular, especially among young riders. A 2015 index noted that 70 percent of its consumers were aged 16 to 34. Yet the same traits that make Uber popular hide its immoral practices.
Uber has been accused of harboring “turn-of-the-century sweatshop” labor conditions, misogyny and the most cutthroat, oppressive side of U.S. capitalism. Labeling Uber’s work environment a “sweatshop” may be sensational, but the company’s labor practices are indisputably oppressive. These conditions are rooted in how the company treats its workers. Officially, drivers are “independent contractors,” not employees. Practically, this means drivers are not eligible for benefits: no health insurance, 401(k) payment for time off or unemployment insurance.
Furthermore, drivers cannot unionize, as the National Labor Relations Act, designed to protect employer and employee rights, excludes independent contractors. For lucky drivers who use Uber to supplement their income, these restrictions may not be an issue. Yet for many who treat Uber as a full-time job, the gap between Uber’s revenue projections and their reality is immense. This divide only broadens when driving expenses and constant competitive price changes are accounted for. Though it is easy to lose perspective amid the legalese, the saddening truth is that many Uber drivers struggle to get by, lack representation and have no safety nets to fall back on.
Beyond Uber’s unethical employment practices, issues of sexism and an efficiency-over-regulation mentality intersect to make the company’s offices and drives unsafe spaces. Internally, sexism is disturbingly rampant. Emir Michael, a senior vice-president said he would “spend a million dollars” to discredit a female journalist by investigating her personal and family life. Singling out one female journalist among many critics illuminates corporate Uber’s misogyny. The journalist’s article, “The Horrific Trickledown of Asshole Culture: Why I’ve Deleted Uber from my Phone” sums up the systemic nature of Uber’s discrimination well, from its ad campaigns to officials’ misogynistic comments.
Chauvinism at Uber’s highest level indeed “trickles down” to create an insensitive, anti-regulation and ultimately dangerous environment. Lax safety regulations and loose background checks create a perilous environment for (especially women) drivers and riders. In one harrowing account that is neither remotely unique nor the worst of its kind, a woman hoping to take an Uber was threatened with rape and death. She is one of many riders who have been assaulted or nearly abducted by drivers.
Uber’s weak response only emphasizes the ingrained nature of its prejudice. Its new initiative pledges to “empower” one million women drivers by 2020. Such a goal is dangerously out of step with Uber’s demographic reality, in which only 14 percent of over 160,000 active drivers are women. Beneath its rhetoric, Uber has refused even the smallest steps to bolster safety, fairness or equality. Recently, it went so far as to publicly oppose more comprehensive driver background checks. At nearly every stage, Uber has placed profit and convenience over human dignity.
Sadly, public activism alone has been ineffective. Every aforementioned abuse was well-documented and inspired fury when first published. But Uber keeps growing and is set to have its most profitable year yet. Lawsuits aimed at reversing its treatment of workers have gained small victories, but have become too limited and bitterly contested to create change. Unfortunately, by appealing to young consumers’ lack of time, money and care, Uber has prospered with its immorality and popularity intact.
The failure of solely social or political action alone to hold Uber accountable speaks to the necessity of incorporating economic activism. Young consumers make up almost 70 percent of Uber’s revenue. That gives us hard, tangible power to impact the business practices of Uber. We cannot be naïve or idealistic in the face of widespread injustice that too many of us, through urgency or willful ignorance, are complicit in. By embracing inconvenience, we rebel; by divesting, we have the opportunity to push reform. By engaging with consumers’ diverse realities and power, we have the capacity to change the course of the Uber revolution.
Of course, no one should call for a boycott from those who rely on Uber for a (ideally) safe, quick ride home, an emergency lifeline or a path to areas institutionally deprived of efficient public transportation. Even with its flaws, Uber has become understandably invaluable to many. For these customers, reliance on Uber makes their condemnation powerful but a boycott unbearable. For others, Uber is a tool, not a necessity, that can be abandoned through a careful reallocation of time, money and care.
No matter our experience, buying convenience with passivity makes us complicit in corporate immorality. Those who rely on Uber have the strongest voices and reasons to condemn it. For those who are able, embracing the inconvenience of bus rides, trains or carpool divests them from injustice. Collectively these efforts can force Uber and corporations like it to reform.
Gabriel Dunatov is a sophomore Diplomacy and World Affairs major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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