Is Uber turning into a responsible corporate citizen?
In its seven years of existence, the San Francisco-based online transportation network has earned a reputation for riding roughshod over market sensibilities.
In certain cities, including some in SA, protests have accompanied the arrival of the taxi service that allows consumers with smartphones to locate the nearest Uber driver — threatening the livelihoods of existing taxi drivers.
Uber’s response has been that its presence is good for competition and that, anyway, you can’t halt progress. It says its growing suite of services is the future of urban transport and will cut congestion and pollution by reducing the need for private car use and even car ownership.
Its we-know-best attitude has created endless controversy. But now Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, head of Uber operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says it’s time to pursue co-operation, not confrontation.
Gore-Coty, who’s just been in Johannesburg to look at the local subsidiary, says: "We haven’t always engaged people as we should. Some of the bumps along the way were the result of Uber’s approach of expecting things to change for us. Now we are more into collaboration and explaining what we are trying to achieve."
In SA, as in other markets, he says, the company is engaging with municipalities and taxi operators. This includes making some of its ride-hailing technology available to taxi rivals.
The new approach is born partly of necessity. Midyear, Uber was fined €800,000 by a French court for running an illegal transport service with its UberPop ride-sharing scheme, and Gore-Coty was one of two executives convicted of "deceptive commercial practices".
More recently, a London employment tribunal ruled that Uber drivers are employees, not subcontractors, so they are entitled to leave and other benefits. It declared: "The notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common [IT] platform is ... faintly ridiculous."
Uber is appealing this finding, a process Gore-Coty says may last several years. He says the tribunal decision goes against the very principle of Uber. "When we ask drivers why they drive for us, more than 90% say they like the freedom of being their own boss. They want to run their own lives. They don’t want to be employees and have salaries."
He says he does not expect the London ruling to affect the way Uber does business elsewhere.
"Our challenge," he says, "is that the speed of modern innovation is greater than the capacity of policy makers to adapt."
Forcing the pace, as Uber is discovering, is not always the answer. "We have to take the time to engage and have constructive dialogues. We realise that now."