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The Uber leak exposes its global war on workers

The “Uber Files” leak reveals the power of the company’s multimillion-dollar lobbying effort — and how it worked with governments around the world to undercut workers’ rights.
 
by Paris Marx 

Part 3 - Uber Hasn’t Changed

When Dara Khosrowshahi became CEO in August 2017, the company framed its problem as having a bad corporate “culture” and promised that Khosrowshahi was going to clean it up. But while management’s treatment of women and other marginalized groups at its headquarters was a problem, the rot went to the very core of its business model — and that was something Khosrowshahi couldn’t (and wouldn’t) change.

The most important campaign that Khosrowshahi has undertaken since taking over Uber has not been to clean up the company’s “frat house” culture, but to overturn the rights of workers in California. In September 2019, the state passed Assembly Bill 5, which would have forced gig companies like Uber to reclassify their workers as employees instead of independent contractors. However, the companies teamed up and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to mislead the public into voting for a ballot measure called Proposition 22 that they claimed would improve the conditions of workers, but in fact did the exact opposite by denying them employment status.

The Uber Files are not so much about Uber’s internal culture as they are about the way the company cemented itself in cities around the world through the ruthless pursuit of political connections and favorable regulation at virtually any cost. Despite the claims of Uber’s public relations team that it’s changed since the period covered by the leaked documents, its ongoing campaign to have its misclassification of workers written into law shows the exact opposite.

Emboldened in the aftermath of Prop 22, Khosrowshahi rolled out plans to vigorously campaign for a labor classification it called “IC+” or “independent contractor plus.” Under the plan, workers would be considered independent contractors, denying them all the rights and benefits that come with employment status. But the company promised they would get a few protections, including a minimum wage for “engaged time” and some limited benefits. However, the experience of Prop 22 had already showed them to be false promises: few workers could access the meager benefits and the promised minimum wage amounted to just $5.64 an hour.

Uber planned to roll its framework out across the United States and around the world. In Massachusetts, its plan for a ballot measure has recently hit a roadblock in the form of the state’s top court, but the company has been more successful in Washington. In Canada, Uber branded IC+ as “Flexible Work+” and has been lobbying provinces across the country to change their labor laws. Ontario’s recent gig work law closely mirrors what Uber has been pushing for.

Meanwhile, a UK Supreme Court decision last year found that Uber drivers should be classified as workers and receive the associated rights and benefits. The ruling was celebrated as a step forward for workers, and Uber used it as a key piece of its PR campaign to make people believe it treats workers fairly. But Uber never actually complied with the full decision, which said that workers should be guaranteed a minimum wage for the entire time they’re working — from log on to log off. Instead, Uber only gives it for “engaged” time, or when they’re providing a ride.

The Uber Files also show how the company cultivated important relationships, regardless of their consequences. In Canada’s federal election last year, the Conservative Party released a gig work plan that was described as a “carbon copy” of Uber’s Flexible Work+ proposal. It turned out an Uber lobbyist was the party’s policy director and played a lead role in putting together the platform. Luckily, the party lost the election, but Khosrowshahi has done far worse than that.

In 2019, after there was conclusive evidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the execution and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Khosrowshahi still wasn’t ready to distance himself from the murderous dictator. Speaking to Axios, he described the order as a “mistake,” and said that “people make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that they can never be forgiven.” The next day, the PR team had to clean up the mess he made in trying not to offend one of the company’s major shareholders.

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