The news that Uber was willing to let its drivers face violence in the name of profits has been out for several days now. Some of the information that appeared in The Guardian is stunning:
The attacks posed an obvious challenge for Uber, discouraging people from driving for the platform. On the other hand, some at the company seemed to believe it was benefiting Uber. As a senior communications manager in Europe emailed succinctly on 24 August 2015 after violent taxi protests against Uber drivers in Belgium: “Violence in France has led to regulatory momentum.”
At times, the script went like this: an Uber driver gets beaten, stabbed or otherwise attacked by taxi drivers; managers in an Uber country office alert national media in hopes of free anti-taxi publicity; lobbyists exploit the incident to secure meetings with ministers and government officials and promote favourable legislation.
The picture that the whole major investigative story presents is not a surprise to those of us who have watched the company since it emerged in San Francisco, illegally operating as a taxi service with the tacit approval of the late Mayor Ed Lee and a mission to destroy not only taxis (and the lives of their drivers) but public transportation around the world.
The model was simple: Uber would enter a country and violate the law, but use its ample venture capital to undercut traditional cabs and to hire top lobbyists to convince officials to change the rules.
But here in SF, there are some important take-aways. One, of course, is that Uber is a rogue company that down one could argue should be shut down. Cleary city officials shouldn’t be spending tens of thousands of dollars in public money supporting it.
But the issue of driver safety is also a huge local issue, and something that city officials could do a lot more to address.
“We have been talking for years about the lack of safety for drivers,”
Cherri Murphy, a former Uber driver who works with Gig Workers Rising, told me. “This is insider corroboration of everything we have said.”
The organization put out a report this spring showing that more than 50 app workers, most of them Uber drivers, were killed on the job since 2017:
Our research found that over 50 gig workers have been murdered on the job since 2017 in just the United States. The true number is likely to be much greater as gig corporations don’t regularly disclose the number of homicides that occur for people working using their app. Fatal assaults on drivers persist despite gig corporation awareness of its deadly safety crisis. For example, Uber committed to keep drivers safe following the murder of 16 Uber drivers in Brazil in 2016. Yet the steps they have taken are both insufficient and ineffective, as evidenced by the fact that drivers are still being murdered on the job.
And Uber does little or nothing to help the families of the dead drivers:
Of the 50+ gig workers we researched, in most cases, we found no evidence that their families received any compensation from these gig platform companies. Yet, in many cases, gig workers are killed by the people they serve—their passengers. In other words, gig platform companies introduce their drivers and deliverers to their murderer. After a worker’s tragic death, the corporations for whom they worked often send ‘thoughts and prayers’ through news reporters, but do not pay or otherwise substantively support families. This behavior is consistent with these corporations’ core business model: cutting costs by evading compensation and protection of their workers.
Uber just released its own “safety report,” which speaks in glowing terms about how much the company cares about its riders. That’s important: Since the company started, it has consistently failed to do the sort of screening that regular taxi companies do to make sure the drivers have safe records (and no criminal records).
There’s a lot less in the report about driver safety.
In fact, after the report was released, three US senators and a member of Congress send a letter of inquiry to Uber, asking for data on violent incidents that impact drivers:
Uber’s business model both penalizes those drivers for turning down rides that may be dangerous and incentivizes them to take risks in picking up passengers, all the while denying them basic employment benefits. Uber further refuses to release comprehensive data on the dangers its drivers face on the job, transparency that is sorely needed for drivers, the public, and Congress to understand the unique risks these workers face. These policies are unacceptable. We urge you to promptly change direction and start making your workers’ health and safety a top priority.
Furthermore, because Uber misclassifies its workers as independent contractors, they do not receive the safety and health benefits of traditional employees, including workers’ compensation and disability insurance. Taxi drivers, for example, typically have access to workers’ compensation and other benefits when they suffer an occupational injury. By contrast, as recent research reveals, app-based delivery workers and their families often receive nothing from the company when they are harmed on the job.
Notably, the report found that Uber drivers suffered sexual and physical assaults at nearly the same rate as passengers. Although publishing this report was a positive step, it did not go far enough. The report excluded statistics on non-fatal physical assaults and robberies against drivers, and the statistics omitted safety incidents that occurred while the driver was active on the Uber app but waiting to be matched with a passenger. Uber has apparently not yet released a successive report despite promising to do so every two years. The limited safety data that Uber has made public is now three years out of date.
As of today, Uber has not responded to the request.
San Francisco, Murphy told me, has still, after all these years and all this evidence, not taken seriously the problems created by the company that was born here, and might never have existed if city officials had done their jobs and cracked down on its illegal business model.
“Someone needs to pick up on worker deaths,” Murphy said. “The City Attorneys Office could make sure that there is proper Covid protection for drivers, and the DA’s Office could deal with violence against drivers.”
And the Board of Supes and the Mayor’s Office could demand that our representatives in Sacramento make it a priority to end the special status that the state gave these gig companies, which allows them to exploit workers, avoid local regulation, and continue to operate with impunity.