The saturation of American imports over the past half-century or so has given we lowly islanders a mixed bag to make do with. For the better part: cheeseburgers, ‘90s RnB, the Chevrolet Corvette and the first two seasons of House of Cards. To the lower end: childhood obesity, “proms”, the third season of House of Cards, and – now- Uber.
If you’re as yet unfamiliar with Uber, the controversial “taxi” (except not) app-based business shortly swooping down on Glasgow, please feel free to keep it that way. Since its inception in 2009, Uber has simultaneously managed to reach the grandiose corporate heights of casually becoming a conversational verb (think “to Google”, “to Skype”) whilst also becoming synonymous with sexual assault, prostitution and all round general creepiness. Only in America…
Currently the company is engaged in multiple disputes with countries, journalists, Margaret Hodge MP and the blind (yes, the blind). Things could only get more villainous for Uber were they now to don a twirly moustache or demand one hundred and one puppies. Peter Thiel, the founder of Paypal, has christened Uber, “the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley”, a phrase sure to go down in tech history as among the crème de la crème of exquisite digs.
Important to remember is that Uber drivers are not taxi drivers. Any person or startlingly capable badger in possession of a driver’s license can sign up to “work” for Uber, i.e. use their online platform to gain custom in exchange for Uber taking 20% of the fare. Uber’s vetting process for drivers has in the past been less than successful, leading to the disturbing normalisation of sexual impropriety and even instances of sexual violence, including rape. Skim through headlines pertaining to the company and immerse yourself in a dystopian horrorshow unbefitting of our modern societal expectations: “Uber Driver Charged with Fondling Passenger in Chicago”, “DC Uber Driver Arrested for Alleged Rape But Not Charged Despite Strong Evidence”, “Another DC Uber Driver Accused of Molesting Uber Rider”, “Passenger Struck In Head With Hammer by UberX Driver”, and so on.
For most students getting into a taxi after a night out is as much a normal occurrence as downing that disgusting Sambuca shot an hour beforehand. Getting a taxi is not normally considered a risk, something to be apprehensive of: if anything, a taxi is actually the ideal safe mode of travel. Even our own University’s SRC recommend on their website to “think ahead – don’t walk home alone late at night. Arrange in advance to stay with a trusted friend… or pre-book a taxi.” Again, though, Uber cars are not legitimate taxis. The risk with private hire cars is always greater than with licensed taxis, but when an Uber driver can start with the lightest of vetting procedures and be regulated by nothing more than an app on their Samsung from San Francisco in place of an office in Merchant City, the risk is heightened.
Sexual assault, in itself a severe catalyst for avoidance, is not the only reason to snub Uber. The soaking up of a fifth of a driver’s livelihood in exchange for their use of one app, one inexpensive set of algorithms, is nothing short of exploitative.
Taxis and private hire cars would run with or without the existence of Uber, who just want – like all companies, quite rightly – to grow in their market. Except that our allowance as consumers of this Uber integration in to our city and our lives will ultimately harm both drivers and Glaswegians. Uber drivers have to work longer, extra hours to make the same amount of money they would otherwise make with a local firm. There is also the matter of Uber’s curious tax arrangement, whereby this company operating in the UK, driving over roads in London, Manchester and Glasgow alike, have decided to “opt out” of paying tax to the UK government, opting to pay it to the Dutch exchequer instead.
Except that tax doesn’t really work like that. Maybe Uber have become dizzy with this whirlwind rolling out into new countries in such a short space of time. Maybe they’ve confused tax with their weekly Graze box or lottery tickets. Easy mistake. Maybe they’ve forgotten how the upkeep of the roads they make money from and the healthcare and education of their employees and customers are funded. A more likely explanation, though, is that they want to squeeze as many pounds as they can from their endeavours, casting aside ethics in the process. We in Glasgow ought to be savvy enough not to fall for it.