Uber CEO Forgives Saudi Arabia for a Brutal Murder, But Punishes Drivers for Small Errors

Audrey Winn November 13, 2019

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi speaks during the TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 on September 6, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In an Axios inter­view that aired on HBO last Sun­day, Uber CEO Dara Khos­row­shahi made a trou­bling anal­o­gy. Dis­cussing Uber’s ties to Sau­di Ara­bia — whose sov­er­eign fund is one of Uber’s largest share­hold­ers—Khos­row­shahi described the assas­si­na­tion of Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Jamal Khashog­gi as a mis­take” com­pa­ra­ble to the com­pa­ny’s own mis­takes” in reck­less automa­tion. This mis­take” was brushed off casu­al­ly, with no men­tion of its place in the con­text of oth­er Sau­di mis­takes,” includ­ing an ongo­ing vio­lent war against Yemen and a long his­to­ry of bru­tal­ly silenc­ing domes­tic critics.

It’s a seri­ous mis­take,” Khos­row­shahi said, refer­ring to the order from Sau­di crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s to kill and dis­mem­ber Khashog­gi at the Sau­di con­sulate in Istan­bul in Octo­ber of 2018. 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 mis­take” Khos­row­shahi allud­ed to was the death of pedes­tri­an Elaine Herzberg, who was killed by an Uber self-dri­ving car in 2018. Accord­ing to doc­u­ments released by the U.S. Nation­al Trans­porta­tion Safe­ty Board (NTSB) last week, there was a cas­cade of poor design deci­sions that led to the car being unable to prop­er­ly process and respond to Herzberg’s pres­ence as she crossed the road­way with her bicy­cle.” She was thrown 75 feet in the air by the col­li­sion and died on site.

Though Khos­row­shahi scram­bled 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, who left the com­pa­ny after alle­ga­tions of mak­ing racial slurs and sex­ist comments.

I don’t think that a com­ment that might have been tak­en as insen­si­tive and hap­pened to report by large news orga­ni­za­tions should mark a per­son,” Khos­row­shahi said. I don’t think that’s fair. And I’m sure I’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?”

This atti­tude reveals a larg­er issue at Uber — the jar­ring dou­ble stan­dard for for­giv­ing cor­po­rate mis­takes” 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 Kalan­ick joked that the com­pa­ny’s nick­name was Boober” because of the way it boost­ed employ­ees’ sex appeal. That same year, it was also revealed that Uber’s self-named God View” could be used to track rid­ers’ loca­tions, includ­ing the loca­tions of jour­nal­ists the com­pa­ny sought to intim­i­date. From spy­ing on Bey­on­cé and com­peti­tors, to sys­tem­i­cal­ly under­pay­ing dri­vers, to fir­ing over 20 employ­ees who filed sex­u­al harass­ment claims, the com­pa­ny is quick to seek lenien­cy for itself and drop its mis­takes hap­pen” atti­tude the moment it turns its atten­tion toward drivers.

In con­trast to its inter­nal cor­po­rate poli­cies, Uber’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 are at risk of get­ting fired if they main­tain a rat­ing below 4.6. This pol­i­cy remains unchanged, despite the fact that stud­ies have shown that Uber’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 rat­ings they are told they can rejoin the plat­form if they com­plete cost­ly, time-con­sum­ing train­ing cours­es run by Uber’s third-par­ty part­ners. Many can’t afford these class­es already, due to Uber’s 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 Uber’s his­to­ry of hold­ing dri­vers’ pover­ty against them. Who can for­get the now-viral six-minute exchange, where for­mer-CEO Travis Kalan­ick respond­ed to a driver’s com­plaints about plum­met­ing rates by telling him that he wasn’t a hard work­er — that some peo­ple don’t like to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for their own shit. They blame every­thing in their life on some­body else.”

Even when dri­vers have worked hard” and excelled in their rat­ings, how­ev­er, Uber still has ways to pun­ish them. Any num­ber of offens­es can lead to deac­ti­va­tion, includ­ing, accord­ing to 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 for a pun­ish­ing range of issues, includ­ing alleged­ly report­ing when pas­sen­gers called them anti-Mus­lim slurs and mak­ing pri­vate Face­book posts.

Uber has a new CEO, but it’s still busi­ness as usu­al. The company’s con­tin­ued oper­a­tion is premised on for­give­ness for the rich and pow­er­ful, and pun­ish­ment for work­ers. Khosrowshahi’s state­ment shows this injus­tice remains, with­out any evi­dence of cor­po­rate self-reflection.

Audrey Winn is a Skad­den Fel­low­ship Attor­ney work­ing and writ­ing in New York City. She is pas­sion­ate about work­ers’ rights, algo­rith­mic trans­paren­cy, and the inclu­sion of gig work­ers in the future of the labor movement.
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