Sexism & workers’ rights: Uber is fumbling its “golden opportunity”

By Oliver Smith 20 February 2017

Scandals continue to dog the ride-hire service.

It’s a truly horrific story. A male manager making inappropriate sexual advances towards a female worker, whose complaints are ignored because the manager “was a high performer.”

Sadly, that’s what’s reportedly happening at Uber today.

Uber should be an icon of digital business in 2017, it should be leading the way in terms of diversity, equality and progressive employment practices.

Instead, over the last few weeks Uber has been dogged by endless scandals.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - August 25, 2015: Taxi drivers celebrate passage of the law against Uber on the steps of City Council of Rio Chamber. The law, which must be enacted by Mayor Eduardo Paes, prohibits Uber and similar apps.

Flagrant sexism

Last night Susan Fowler published a disturbing description of her year working at Uber, discovering flagrant sexism among the engineering teams which led to the majority of women leaving.

“It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being ‘his first offense’, and it certainly wasn’t his last.”

Fowler says the number of women in the 150-person team she worked in fell from around 25% to just 3% in the time she worked there.

In response to Susan Fowler’s sexism allegations Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said:

“I have just read Susan Fowler’s blog. What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in.”

He’s also instructed Uber’s Chief Human Resources Officer to launch an investigation into the allegations.

“We seek to make Uber a just workplace for everyone and there can be absolutely no place for this kind of behaviour at Uber – and anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.”

Uber drivers protesting in London.

Basic workers’ rights?

Last week Uber in the UK unveiled a raft of new initiatives for drivers in London.

These include advice sessions to help its drivers who aren’t making much money from the service, and free english language courses.

Uber lost a UK employment tribunal in October that ruled its drivers should be classed as workers, rather than self-employed, a decision that Uber is appealing against.

But Uber still hasn’t given its workers holiday pay, pensions or guaranteed minimum wages.

“The measures do not address the concerns of the hundreds of drivers contacting GMB who are focussed on getting basic workers’ rights,” said trade union GMB in response.

“Uber missed a golden opportunity to start complying with the law. They continue to ignore the decision of the courts that drivers are employed workers with rights to receive holiday pay, a guaranteed minimum wage and an entitlement to breaks.”

Read more: This Uber challenger profits from paying drivers well


Lagging behind

If a traditional minicab company was dogged with the kind of sexism and mistreatment of workers’ rights that we’re seeing from Uber it would be disgusting and deplorable, but maybe not surprising.

Modern tech companies are supposed to be leading the way, not just with flashy apps and cool services, but with a progressive employment culture too.

In truth starting a business is easy, there are literally millions in Britain alone, but creating a positive company culture that respects all staff, their opinions and rights, that’s a real challenge.

Today Uber and CEO Travis Kalanick is floundering and failing to do that, missing a golden opportunity to lead the way.

His app may be futuristic, but his business is decidedly stuck in the past.