Wed, Jun 21, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Homeless, assaulted: Drivers left behind as Uber promises change

Uber has vowed a shake-up of its scandal-prone executive culture, but it is drivers, often left destitute by car rentals and low pay, who are being shortchanged

By Carla Green and Sam Levin  /  The Guardian, LOS ANGELES and SAN FRANCISCO

Illustration: Mountain People

It was billed as one of the most important company-wide meetings in the history of Uber. Yet, as staff gathered on Tuesday last week at Uber’s headquarters in San Francisco, there was one very conspicuous absence.

“Let us address the elephant in the room,” said Arianna Huffington, perhaps the most high-profile member of Uber’s board. “Where is Travis?”

The answer: Travis Kalanick, Uber’s 40-year-old cofounder and chief executive, was taking a leave of absence from the ride-hailing app he has transformed into a global behemoth valued at almost US$70 billion.

Huffington told Uber’s staff that the company would not await Kalanick’s return, choosing instead to act immediately on the findings of a damning investigation, accepted by the board, into the company’s workplace culture amid claims of sexual harassment.

“Uber is his life,” she said of Kalanick. “He has taken full responsibility for what the company has gone through in the last few months and now he wants to be part of us turning a new page and together building the next chapter in Uber’s history.”

The embattled company had hit the reset button, without its controversial CEO, it would, Huffington declared, be “a new Uber.”

It lasted all of six minutes and 45 seconds, when another board member, venture capitalist David Bonderman, interjected with a sexist joke, saying that more women on the board means “it’s much more likely to be more talking.”

Within a few hours, Bonderman had resigned, the latest in a seemingly never-ending stream of company leaders and senior executives who have either been forced out or, more often, simply abandoned ship.

At about the time Uber’s San Francisco staff were informed that their chief executive was taking an indefinite break from his company, Dante was waking up in his car on a quiet street not far from downtown Los Angeles. The 28-year-old rolled up his sleeping bag, put it in the trunk with his pillow and drove off to get breakfast before picking up his first Uber passenger.

Dante, who lives out of the car, knew little about the turmoil in the upper echelons of his employer, 560km away in northern California.

“It is what it is,” he said. “I don’t really expect anything else from them.”

“It would be nice to make more money,” he added.

Yet, the most remarkable aspect of Uber’s calamitous staff meeting was not necessarily Bonderman’s misogynistic remark, or even the findings of the review led by the law firm of former US attorney general Eric Holder. It was a subject that was barely mentioned at the meeting: the increasingly frustrated and demoralized workforce of Uber drivers — some of whom, like Dante, have been rendered homeless.

To some labor activists, the major ethical failing that should be inspiring bold promises of change at Uber is not so much the treatment of its well-paid tech workers, but the plight of its impoverished drivers, who are earning low and unstable wages in a job without security or benefits, or struggling to pay off loans for their Uber cars — debts that some have equated to dodgy subprime mortgages.

Classified as contractors, the drivers have little recourse to deal with a litany of workplace challenges and hazards, including wage cuts by the company, harassment and sexual assault by passengers and a rating system that some have said is plagued by racial biases. It is well-known that Uber has done battle with labor organizing efforts and traditional taxi regulations in markets across the world.

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