Uber has a discrimination problem, and it’s not just the one you might be thinking of.
Many of us read Susan Fowler’s account of her experience as an engineer at Uber, which exposed a toxic culture at Uber, especially for women. Her coming forward triggered yet another round of scrutiny of the famously aggressive and rule-ignoring company, and led to the firing of more than 20 employees, as well as details of a report former Attorney General Eric Holder released to Uber employees on Tuesday about the company’s troubled workplace culture.
I hope this internal investigation will lead to changes for many of Uber’s employees. But even if the company follows all the recommendations and genuinely makes efforts to root out the sexual harassment, discrimination and other bad behavior, that doesn’t help the vast majority of Uber’s workforce: its drivers.
Until Uber accomplishes its goal of replacing drivers with autonomous cars, today’s Uber drivers are as crucial to the company’s success as its engineers. And those drivers, unlike Uber’s office workers, are treated by the company as independent contractors rather than as employees. That matters for a number of reasons, but especially in the context of harassment and discrimination: anti-discrimination laws typically only apply to employees, not to independent contractors. But sitting in a mobile office does not make such protections any less needed.
A new report I helped research for the National Employment Law Project explains why drivers for companies like Uber need and deserve anti-discrimination protections. In particular, recent studies have shown that the use of passenger ratings to assess the performance of drivers exposes drivers to the overt or implicit biases of passengers. When low passenger scores lead to drivers being fired, or “deactivated,” Uber’s seemingly neutral ratings system end up facilitating discrimination. Ironically, Uber has even acknowledged passenger biases in its argument against facilitating in-app tipping, which suggests that the company is happy to point to those biases to keep money out of drivers’ pockets, but ignores passenger bias that may lead to drivers being dropped from the platform entirely.
We know it’s wrong that Fowler, the former Uber engineer, got a low performance review because of her complaints about sexual harassment. Uber’s drivers also should be able to expect a workplace free from bias, and shouldn’t have to fight their employment classification in order to vindicate their rights. The company’s non-discrimination policies sound good, but we may be forgiven for not having much trust in Uber’s ability and willingness to change course without outside pressure, such as from a state or federal agency charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws.
Uber and other on-demand companies owe it to their drivers and customers to ensure that they are taking discrimination seriously. They don’t have to wait for the government to tell them to root out discrimination on their platforms. Uber is valued at well over $60 billion and has formidable technological and creative capabilities, not to mention the internal data on driver and passenger demographics and ratings. There is no reason that they cannot apply their considerable ingenuity to solving the vexing and persistent problem of discrimination experienced by their drivers, and also publicly sharing exactly what actions they are taking so that we, and their drivers, can hold them accountable.
Uber touts its contributions to the communities in which it operates, including that it offers work opportunities to people who may otherwise have a hard time getting their foot in the door. If Uber is serious about being a good place to work, let's see them prove they mean it for their drivers, too.
Nayantara Mehta is a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project in Berkeley, California.