Uber is a company built around maximizing customer service and experience — sometimes at any cost. Critics note that the price is paid by those providing the labor, the army of modestly paid freelance drivers around the world who have no guaranteed income and few if any job benefits and protections.
But it seems, the king of car-hailing services also has labor problems at the mother ship. Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber's San Francisco headquarters, posted an account of sexual harassment that she and several other women employees say they faced, and the lack of responsiveness from senior management.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was quick to respond to Fowler's blog post, opening an internal investigation this week into the harassment charges. Having earned the reputation as a ruthless capitalist, Kalanick is hoping to staving off another online backlash like the one that forced him to step down earlier this month from President Donald Trump's economic advisory board. That move came only after several hundred thousand Uber customers had deleted the app following Trump's crackdown on immigration, noting how many foreign-born drivers the company counts on.
Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick — Photo: Heisenberg Media
By now, Uber has probably grown big enough to resist both its own internal management woes and the occasional customer boycott. It is one of a handful of technology companies that in just a few years has begun to alter the lives of both customers and workers around the world.
Still, the Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo reports on how this mobile-based business model of part-time workers equipped only with a car and a smartphone can sometimes simply not work. In the megalopolis of São Paulo, Uber drivers wait for up to 12 hours at Guarulhos International Airport, hoping for a single fare that may only bring in 80 reais ($25).
But the Brazilian drivers have their own ways of protecting themselves, notes the newspaper. "Before deciding whether to take a ride, most of them call the user and ask for their destination. If they consider it too much hassle for too little money, they either make up an excuse about a problem with their car or they simply stay put. It's a way of pressuring the customer, who's looking to move quickly, into canceling the ride."
No doubt Kalanick will be just as busy investigating the drivers in Brazil as the sexual harassment charges back at San Francisco headquarters.