LAUSANNE Uber, the quasi-taxi company, is back in the news, again for all the wrong reasons. The company has just launched its service in Basel despite condemnation by local taxi firms, but also public authorities and lawmakers elsewhere. For such critics, the city would do well to heed the advice of those who have experience of the company.
Fears voiced by the authorities and licensed taxi companies in several cities including Geneva, London and Berlin have been realised with horrible inevitability. A female passenger was allegedly brutally attacked and raped by an Uber driver last weekend in New Delhi. The driver was hired by Uber, despite having been arrested three years previously for sexual assault. The victim managed to photograph the driver and car, which led to his arrest and appearance in court on Monday.
Uber’s chief executive officer, Travis Kalanick said in a statement. “We will do everything, I repeat, everything to help bring this perpetrator to justice.” Easily said, considering the alleged perpetrator was already behind bars. He failed to mention that only a couple of weeks before another woman had reported the same driver to Uber for lewd behaviour. According to the woman, Uber had merely sent her an email stating that they would look into it.
Observers maintain that Uber needs to significantly overhaul its hiring practices, plus adopt greater transparency. But that’s expensive, requires effort and will reduce the massive profits promised by management. Also it’s something the company may now not be able to do in Delhi, where it has been banned from operating.
Elsewhere, matters are not getting any better. Spain, The Netherlands and Thailand this week followed Germany in banning the company from operating. Bangkok’s Department of Land Transport stated that drivers picking up fare-paying passengers via Uber’s app were neither registered nor insured to drive commercial vehicles. Furthermore, Uber’s credit-card payment system did not comply with regulations.
Adding to the company’s woes in the region, Uber executives cancelled a meeting with transport officials in Vietnam after the deputy transport minister called the firm’s operations illegal. Uber, however, has briefed local media maintaining that it is working with transport companies so that its drivers are both licenced and insured, and that it provides passenger insurance.
In the US, authorities in Portland, Oregon filed suit against Uber after claiming that the company had violated local transport regulations. The city wants the company to stop operating until it complies with safety, health and consumer protection rules. As Mayor Charlie Hales noted: “Our main concern is public health and safety, Beyond that, though, is the issue of fairness. Taxi companies follow rules on public health and safety. So do hotels and restaurants and other service providers. Because everyone agrees: good regulations make for a safer community. Uber disagrees, so we’re seeking a court injunction.”
The company is now facing similar actions by authorities both in Oslo and Copenhagen. These actions will resonate here in Switzerland. Geneva officials found Uber operating in the city before it had received the appropriate permissions.
For such critics, Uber management is clearly in need of scrutiny. According to BuzzFeed, an Uber executive floated the idea of spending USD one million to hire its own team of specialists who would covertly retaliate against reporters by digging up dirt on their personal lives if they write negative copy about the company.
Recently, Emil Michael, a company senior vice president, reportedly made an overtly cynical off-the-record comment at a private dinner that provoked outrage. He argued that the feminist editor-in-chief of PandoDaily, Sarah Lacy, who previously wrote about removing Uber from her phone because of the company’s “asshole culture,” should be held “personally responsible” for every woman who deletes Uber from their phone and then gets sexually assaulted by a taxi driver. His argument being that assault is more likely from an ordinary rather than an Uber taxi driver. Michael later apologised for his remarks in a statement made to online magazine, The Verge.
As both local authorities and lawmakers point out, it is iniquitous that a company can ride rough shod over municipal, state and national laws, while claiming high safety standards when not even investigating a serious accusation against a driver. Or that it initiates smear campaigns against reporters.
With such low integrity and ethics, observers note that it is no surprise that a company which exploits short-sighted consumer greed to build its market and undercut traditional suppliers is now being broadsided. It is no less unexpected, they say, Uber and its share-holders dismiss the adverse consequences of the business: the diminishment of safety, knowledgeable service and an increase in unemployment and instability of employment, as natural market forces. Uber is being increasingly perceived as a gang of ruthless people who have identified value that can be stripped out of a market – taking from the many and giving to the few – without adding or returning anything of value.
As members of the public point out, Swiss taxis are often over-priced, but such matters should best be remedied through regulation or regulated market forces. At the same time, it is recognized that taxi drivers play an important, if not mundane role in any urban society. Their contributions cannot be measured simply in terms of transport effectiveness. Basel is now faced with the challenge of deciding whether it should re-consider its decision to let Uber operate under the guise of being a limousine company, and whether the needs of local customers are really being taken into consideration.