In anÂ AxiosÂ interview thatÂ airedÂ on HBO last Sunday, Uber CEOÂ Dara Khosrowshahi made a troubling analogy. Discussing Uberâ€™s ties to Saudi Arabiaâ€”whose sovereign fund is one of Uber’sÂ largest shareholdersâ€”Khosrowshahi described theÂ assassinationÂ ofÂ Washington PostÂ columnist Jamal Khashoggi as a â€śmistakeâ€ť comparable to the company’s own â€śmistakesâ€ť in reckless automation. This â€śmistakeâ€ť was brushed off casually, with no mention of its place in the context of other Saudi â€śmistakes,â€ťÂ including an ongoingÂ violent warÂ againstÂ YemenÂ and a longÂ historyÂ of brutally silencing domestic critics.
“It’s a serious mistake,”Â Khosrowshahi said, referring to the order from Saudi crown princeÂ Mohammed bin Salman’s to kill and dismember Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October ofÂ 2018.Â “We’ve made mistakes too, right, with self-driving, and we stopped driving and we’re recovering from that mistake. I think that people make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that they can never be forgiven.”
The self-driving â€śmistakeâ€ť Khosrowshahi alluded to was the death of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg, who was killed by an Uber self-driving car in 2018.Â According toÂ documents released by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) last week, there wasÂ â€śa cascade of poor design decisions that led to the car being unable to properly process and respond to Herzbergâ€™s presence as she crossed the roadway with her bicycle.â€ť She was thrown 75 feet in the air by the collision and died on site.
ThoughÂ KhosrowshahiÂ scrambledÂ to backtrack his statement, his apology seems disingenuous given his previous record of emphasizing the importance of forgiving corporate wrongdoings. In a 2018 interview, Khosrowshahi defended Uber COO Barney Harford, whoÂ leftÂ the company after allegations of making racial slurs and sexist comments.
â€śI donâ€™t think that a comment that might have been taken as insensitive and happened to report by large news organizations should mark a person,â€ť Khosrowshahi said. â€śI donâ€™t think thatâ€™s fair. And Iâ€™m sure Iâ€™ve said things that have been insensitive and you take that as a learning moment. And the question is, does a person want to change, does a person want to improve?â€ť
This attitude reveals a larger issue at Uberâ€”the jarring double standard for forgiving corporate â€śmistakesâ€ť while punishing driver errors, even though corporate leaders have far more power to perpetrate large-scale harm.
Since its inception, Uber has faced a steady stream of public controversies. In 2014, former Uber CEO Travis KalanickÂ jokedÂ that the company’s nickname was “Boober” because of the way it boosted employeesâ€™ sex appeal. That same year, it was also revealed that Uberâ€™s self-named â€śGod Viewâ€ť could be used toÂ track ridersâ€™ locations, including the locations of journalists the company sought to intimidate. FromÂ spying on BeyoncĂ©Â andÂ competitors, toÂ systemically underpaying drivers, toÂ firing over 20 employees who filed sexual harassment claims, the company is quick to seek leniency for itself and drop its â€śmistakes happenâ€ť attitude the moment it turns its attention toward drivers.
In contrast to its internal corporate policies, Uberâ€™s attitude toward drivers is unforgiving. Uber has a militantly single-minded emphasis on high ratings. Given this mindset, it is not surprising that Uber drivers areÂ at riskÂ of getting fired if they maintain a rating below 4.6. This policy remains unchanged, despite the fact thatÂ studiesÂ have shown that Uberâ€™s rating system allows riders to express biases and evaluate drivers in ways that violate federal anti-discrimination laws.
When drivers are deactivated for low ratingsÂ they are toldÂ they can rejoin the platform if they complete costly, time-consuming training courses run by Uberâ€™s third-party partners. Many canâ€™t afford these classes already, due to Uberâ€™sÂ dropping wages and vanishing bonuses. Instead of getting training course discounts from the tech giant, however, this requirement remains.
The lack of sympathy is unsurprising given Uberâ€™s history of holding driversâ€™ poverty against them. Who can forget the now-viral six-minute exchange, where former-CEO Travis Kalanick responded to a driverâ€™s complaints about plummeting rates byÂ telling himÂ that he wasnâ€™t a hard workerâ€”that â€śsome people donâ€™t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else.â€ť
Even when drivers have â€śworked hardâ€ť and excelled in their ratings, however, Uber still has ways to punish them. Any number of offenses can lead to deactivation, including,Â according toÂ Uber, “certain actions [drivers] may take outside of the app, if we determine that those actions threaten the safety of the Uber community, or cause harm to Uber’s brand, reputation, or business.” Though some attempt has been made to clarify these guidelines, confusion remains. Drivers have been allegedly deactivated forÂ a punishing range of issues, including allegedlyÂ reportingÂ when passengers called them anti-Muslim slurs andÂ makingÂ private Facebook posts.
Uber has a new CEO, but itâ€™s still business as usual. The companyâ€™s continued operation is premised on forgiveness for the rich and powerful, and punishment for workers. Khosrowshahiâ€™s statement shows this injustice remains, without any evidence of corporate self-reflection.
This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on November 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.