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How Uber can emerge from its scandals as a more ethical company

How Uber can emerge from its scandals as a more ethical company


Stop Greyballing

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To put it lightly, Uber has had a rough couple months. After the departure of its CEO Travis Kalanick and many of his top deputies following several months of nonstop scandals and controversies, the company finds itself in the unique position to hit the reset button. Naturally, a lot of experts and pundits have been weighing in with a variety recommendations for how Uber can rebuild its tattered image.

But a new coalition of labor unions, accessibility advocates, and consumer rights groups has emerged with its own list of suggestions. This group is urging Uber to look beyond the insular world of its employees, board members, and investors to a much broader one that includes hundreds of thousands of drivers and millions of customers.

“a dangerous likelihood that Uber’s sustained ethics challenges will resurface”

The coalition, which includes groups representing over a million members, sent an open letter to Uber’s board members and top executives. In it, they praise the “Moving Uber Forward” letter, in which the company’s top investors called for Kalanick’s resignation, and the board’s adoption of the recommendations from the investigation into its corporate culture. “Those are good steps,” the open letter states, “but Uber’s stakeholders include a much larger group than private equity, venture capitalists, and other large investors.

The open letter continues, “Making changes only at the corporate leadership level creates a dangerous likelihood that Uber’s sustained ethics challenges will resurface.”

The letter’s signatories include a number of groups that have been at loggerheads with Uber over the years, such as the Amalgamated Transit Union, Teamsters Local 117, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and the Center for Disability Rights. It also features worker rights advocates like the National Employment Law Project, several Pittsburgh-based groups (Uber’s autonomous driving research division is located there), and The Rideshare Guys Harry Campbell.

Uber Sign on Letter by ahawkins8223 on Scribd

They urge Uber to make several fundamental changes to the way it conducts its business. To be sure, Uber is already engaged in some of these changes, like data-sharing with local communities and pivoting from “adversarial to collaborative relationships with local governments.” The company recently discontinued its use of the regulator-thwarting software program Greyball after The New York Times outed its existence.

Other recommendations, such as paying drivers a living wage and making payroll tax contributions to workers compensation, social security, and unemployment insurance, will be a tougher hill to climb to those advocating for a more ethical Uber. The company classifies its drivers as independent contractors, arguing they are in business for themselves and thus ineligible for traditional benefits like overtime and health insurance. Still, it’s noticeable that the advocates don’t call for Uber to reclassify its drivers outright, but simply comply with some core labor standards.

Uber recently launched an effort entitled “180 Days of Change” aimed at improving outreach to drivers. This effort includes adding a tipping option to the app and helping drivers obtain injury insurance protection. Critics note, however, that the insurance policies promoted by Uber could leave drivers on the hook for thousands of dollars.

“safe, equal service for all”

They are also urging Uber to commit to a more transparent pricing structure, especially in light of recent reports that it routinely overcharges riders for trips. They also want Uber to commit “safe, equal service for all, especially communities of color and people with disabilities.” Wheelchair accessibility advocates recently sued Uber for not providing enough accessible vehicles.

“The best way for Uber to move forward is for the company to make real, transparent, and enforceable commitments to its drivers, its riders, and the communities in which it operates,” the letter states. “A partnership with these constituencies has the potential to transform the company, and to hold Uber accountable to the higher standards to which it aspires.”

Whether Uber will adopt any of these (admittedly unsolicited) recommendations is anyone’s guess. In response to the letter, a spokesperson for the company said, “We’re focused on building a company that we can be proud of. That means improving our internal culture, repairing our relationship with drivers, and being better citizens to the communities we serve.”

Uber likes to tout the fact that it listens to, and makes changes based on, the feedback it gets from riders and drivers. But on huge corporate changes that would affect its advantage over its competitors, as well as its bottom line, Uber typically turns to one group: the wealthy investors whose financing has helped secure its status as the valuable startup in the world.