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Putting people first

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Uber has come under severe criticism in recent weeks, with many complaints directed at its customer service and it could face challenges if concerns are not properly addressed. 

In one of the most serious incidents reported on social media, a passenger was allegedly attacked by a driver and app users are both worried and justifiably concerned that there is no easy and direct way to get in touch with those responsible to handle issues that crop up when using the ride-hailing platform. But Sri Lanka is not the only place it is running into problems. 

London banned Uber for the second time recently after it was found not be to “fit and proper” for the use of citizenry. Back in 2017, London’s transport regulator cancelled Uber’s licence, saying the company was compromising the safety of riders and not sharing data with the regulator. Uber promised to clean up its act. It added new rider safety features to the app, tightened the driver registration process and promised to share more of its data with the regulator. The TfL licence was reinstated.

Now, two years down the line, TfL has put the ride-hailing company on notice again. This time the regulator found that Uber’s driver registration system is relatively easy to deceive. That has meant customers have taken over 14,000 rides with unregistered drivers. Uber has been called out for undermining working conditions, clogging up city streets, destroying the traditional taxi industry, minimising the tax it pays, sidestepping national regulations and fostering a culture of toxic masculinity. There have also been instances when female drivers have been harassed by passengers.

Uber has been banned in cities including Frankfurt, Barcelona and Budapest. Even in places where Uber continues to operate, its business model has been attacked by regulators. In recent years, the European Court of Justice has ruled that Uber is not a tech firm but a “transportation services” company. This means Uber can no longer sidestep the rules which apply to other taxi companies. Regulators in Europe and California have ruled that Uber drivers are employees and not independent contractors. This means they are entitled to the basic rights of regular employees such as sick pay and holidays. When regulators in Austin, Texas decided to run Uber out of town, local drivers set up their own app called RideAustin. In 2017, the New Economics Foundation launched a project called CabFair which sought to create a driver-owned alternative to Uber in London. These alternatives should not come as a surprise. Co-operative structures are popular with drivers as not only do they make economic sense, they also give workers a greater say in how the systems which they rely on are run.

Ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Pickme have undeniably changed the urban transportation landscape for Sri Lankans. It has scaled on-demand transportation and democratised smartphone-based mobility. They have also created the space for other companies to launch similar apps and provided employment for thousands of people. 

But it is clear that this gig economy, as it is often referred to, cannot operate without following important standards of safety, security and accountability. Technology is a positive thing but it has to come with recognition for drivers, passengers and other stakeholders. Recognition of this is essential to the sustainability of these businesses, which otherwise may see their customers switch to other platforms. People must always be at the centre of business.  

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