Don’t get too excited for Uber, Winnipeg

Ridesharing company fraught with poor driver treatment, sexual harassment allegations

Recently, following my landing at the airport in Ottawa, I opened the Uber app to get a lift to my apartment. The app promptly linked me with a ride that would arrive within two minutes.

My phone soon lit up with a text. It was from my allocated Uber driver: “Hi are you going to Gatineau, this [is] –Uber by the way!” Confused, as I don’t live anywhere near Gatineau, and the ride I had ordered was already set to my address in Ottawa, I responded negatively, giving the name of the neighbourhood I do live in.

My Uber driver promptly cancelled my ride and the app quickly tried to reassign me a lift. The wait for my next Uber driver would be over 10 minutes, so I gave up and took a taxi instead.

Upon doing some research the next day into how and why Uber drivers would be able to cancel a trip, I discovered that drivers are not informed of a customer’s intended destination until they pick the rider up. Uber drivers have to contact riders by text to ask where they want to go if they want to know before picking them up. Hence, a confusing text message asking if I would like to go to Quebec.

Strangely, in such a case that the rider answers the text and the destination is not to the driver’s liking, the Uber driver is supposed to ask the customer to cancel the trip out of courtesy. In my case, the driver cancelled the trip from their end.

Sound a bit confusing? Well, for drivers, it’s just one of many frustrating hurdles to jump through to work for Uber.

As Winnipeg prepares to roll out the red carpet for the ride-sharing company, which expected to land on the streets as early as March 1, this is a good opportunity to outline the serious issues Uber drivers and staff have faced over the last few years.

Some of the company’s main ethical pitfalls lie in its treatment of drivers, the workers that provide the multi-billion dollar corporation the vast majority of its income.

Although Uber offers prospective drivers a flexible schedule, drivers are on the hook to pay for the car, fuel, insurance, and an iPhone – no other smartphone will do – to connect to the app while on the job. Drivers enjoy no benefits from Uber and if one is sick or gets in an accident, there is no safety net provided by the company.

Many of these failures, including a frayed relationship between Uber’s drivers and management over proper compensation, have led drivers to vote with their feet.

In April 2017, CNBC reported that only four per cent of Uber drivers stay with the company longer than one year.

The problem is getting so bad that in the summer Uber executive Aaron Schildkrout admitted the company needed to work harder to accommodate drivers’ demands: “These drivers are our most important partners,” he said. “But historically we haven’t done the best job of honouring that partnership.”

It’s not just the company’s attitude towards drivers that Uber needs to change, however. According to women who worked for Uber as engineers, the company has a serious sexual harassment and misogyny problem.

In June, the Guardian reported that Uber had fired more than 20 employees after an investigation into sexual harassment claims and reports of a toxic workplace culture for women.

Susan Fowler, an engineer who worked at Uber between November 2015 and December 2016, outlined her manager’s propositions to her for sex and constant sexist remarks in a blog post that went viral last year.

Fowler described incidents such as her director explaining that the reason there were fewer women working at Uber over time was because “the women of Uber just needed to step up and be better engineers.”

When Fowler left Uber, she said that of the over 150 engineers on the “site reliability” teams, only three per cent were women.

Multiple women at the company have supported Fowler’s accounts, and the issue was so widespread it is rumoured a Hollywood production company is considering making a movie about it.

Of course, there are numerous advantages to having Uber drivers on the streets of Winnipeg. Right now, the ratio of taxis to people in the city is one cab to every 1,555 Winnipeggers. That means long wait times and poor service from the city’s taxi companies that could be addressed by ridesharing companies entering the market.

However, let’s not overlook the company’s flaws while downloading their app in anticipation of their arrival. Uber can be a great service, but until it adequately addresses its sexual harassment and driver retention problems, Uber will not be a great company.