For almost nine years, Uber has drawn attention and business with its neoteric solutions and rule-breaking style. Along the way, it’s also drawn plenty of public criticism.
For example, Uber has gained an international spotlight for using special kinds of software to gouge riders and track them after drop-off, to spy on and manipulate competitors, and to circumvent authorities. Regulators have questioned whether it’s a public nuisance, or clogging our streets, or has mishandled breaches of user data, or failed to protect and perform sufficient background checks on its drivers, a (proportionately tiny) number of whom later committed rape or murder.
Last year, Uber repeatedly “trended” in the U.S. for its reported mistreatment of women, ranging from ignoring and trying to undermine sexual assault victims to creating a widespread, toxiccorporate culture. It’s made headlines over accusations of industrial theft and espionage arising from its court battle with Google and, most recently, for choosing Nvidia’s tech for its self-driving fleet, which it plans to roll out in 18 months.
From the beginning, however, the most fundamental glitch in Uber and its peers’ approach to transportation has gotten relatively little attention from U.S. audiences and riders, even as protests around the globe have driven other nations to face facts.
That issue, of course, is ride-hail companies’ ongoing and multifaceted abuse of millions of drivers who provide the actual services they sell, and upon whom the whole multibillion-dollar, autonomy-bound industry has relied.
And the lion’s share of this, to be sure, belongs to Uber.
For years, drivers for Uber, Lyft, and other transportation network companies (TNCs) have endured multiple fare cuts of 10% to 40% as companies have battled for global control, and seen their workloads drop as ever more drivers (experienced or not) have packed the platforms.
They have been recruited with earnings statistics which the FTC later found to contain hot air, and been fined and kicked off the app for having language abilities that weren’t an issue during recruitment.
They’ve suffered assaults and insults and countless messes in their own cars — sometimes acquired at iffy rates through Uber itself — while receiving little to no protection or support from the company, or anything like a human resources department (or, until recently, even a voice on the phone).
In general, drivers for TNCs have been expected to bear the highest risks, responsibilities, and costs entailed in the ride-hail industry all on their own, and with virtually no say in the terms of that work — not even when changes are periodically made to their digital contract, and which, to begin the work day, drivers are forced to accept.
And for the most part, attention to TNCs’ activities surrounding their drivers has been minimal, though some media outlets and many consumer groups got the message en route. For better or worse, other businesses have taken note, too.
In 2016, for example, a competitor app called Juno promised to improve the current ride-hail model, which had already squeezed veteran and new professional drivers — traditionally, members of immigrant and working-class families — to their limit. The company, which launched in NYC (with the usual coupons for riders and drivers), announced it would raise the bar by taking a lower cut from each fare, giving drivers more attention and better wages, and allowing drivers exclusive to Juno to get benefits and earn company shares.
Many would-be conscientious riders made the switch, and drivers began praising Juno fares over ones from Uber and Lyft. Juno founder and CEO Talmon Marco told NPR at the time that his research on the ride-hail industry revealed that drivers “really hate ride-sharing companies, [which] have been abusing them, [and] treating them like a commodity.”
Marco pointed to Uber’s practice of “deactivating” drivers whose ratings from customers fall below a certain level, rather than retraining or properly firing them. “You do not deactivate people — you deactivate machines. When you say that you deactivate a person, I think that speaks volumes of the way that you actually think of these people,” Marco told NPR.
Soon after, however, Juno literally sold out to another rival. Drivers were left feeling betrayed, and received puny, unexplained payouts on their shares; several have since moved to sue the company for securities fraud.