When Uber was making its debut in South Africa the tech giant rented an office in the same building as a technology organisation with the responsibility to drive the technology agenda in the Western Cape. The US giant was welcomed with open arms by all in sundry. The attitude was that of excitement about the cool US solution that has finally arrived on our shores. The young Uber representative would host employment-hungry drivers in the building where they were promised heaven and earth according to the Uber Files by ICIJ and other leading media organisations. According to recent reports, the leader of the ride-hailing companies promised more money and benefits which initially were delivered and some later withdrawn. The report indicates that Uber approached taxi drivers and offered them cash payments equivalent to roughly $400 (at the time) to join the app. Cape Town’s earliest Uber drivers were also rewarded with about $4 per trip in driver subsidies, an incentive that managers saw as “aggressive” but necessary to build the city’s initial supply, according to an internal presentation given to Uber’s regional managers in January 2015.
Today, according to the Uber Files some drivers are indebted and they work long hours with limited income. There’s little in the Uber Files that is not known by people who pay closer attention to the ride-hailing and logistics company. The Uber Files have confirmed, with internal emails between Uber executives, what many have suspected. What is probably more disturbing is the extent to which global government leaders were involved in opening doors for Uber to operate.
How was it possible for a multinational company to exploit people in the manner described in the Uber Files by leading media organisations such as the Washington Post?
What blinded everyone is that Uber delivered on two fronts, the first being a convenient transportation system and the second being a way to earn an income. In addition to that, for some, it meant an entrepreneurship opportunity if you could rent your car to a driver.
Uber came to South Africa when everyone was desperate for a simple solution to the challenge of getting around with ease. The transport system as it is currently is not friendly nor is it safe. Uber became a viable option. For those seeking employment in the sea of unemployment in South Africa, working on Uber became a viable option.
Across the world, the Ubers model was customised for different sectors and Uber-like businesses popped up everywhere. Uber will probably continue to revolutionise the transportation system when they finally disrupt the aviation industry and other logistics businesses. All of these solutions blinded everyone from the side effects of adopting Uber in the long run.
Since 2013 there’s not a single technology organisation that condemned actions by Uber in South Africa. There’s not a single entity that could take a stand legally from an informed basis to challenge Uber in a manner that could change the behaviour of this entity. Drivers have tried to form an organised structure to challenge Uber. In some instances, they’ve been violent in an attempt to get attention. All of their efforts have fallen on deaf ears as they lacked an approach that could draw the attention of decision makers. Media pundits as well as academics have tried to sound warning bells. FairWork, an advocacy organisation with focus on working conditions in the digital economy, on the other hand has also attempted to monitor the labour practices of the platform with limited success.
It is not the first time that a tech giant has avoided scrutiny and accountability for its actions. Before Uber, tech multinationals that are gobbling data of South Africans have not adequately accounted for their actions. In other regions multinationals are paying fines for their abuse of citizens data however in South Africa they are ignoring the Information Regulator. As matters stand, technology companies can do whatever they like and they know nothing will be done to stop their behaviour.
The Uber Files should serve as a final wakeup call for authorities.
South Africa and the rest of the African continent needs a watchdog with teeth that can truly bite to stop the anarchy. Big Tech companies need to know that what they are expected to do in Europe is what the Africans expect in terms of treatment. It should not be that BigTech companies have one policy for Europe and a different policy for Africa.
If data abuses and terrible labour policies are bad for the Europeans it should follow that such behaviour cannot be practised in Africa.
The major lesson here is that society should be careful about accepting innovations for the sake of progress if they hurt humans. There should be universal laws against technologies hurting in the process of offering solutions.
At this point in time there’s enough evidence that shows that whenever a tech solution is introduced there are also side effects. This understanding should lead to a form of assessment of all tech solutions before they are fully adopted. Those in authority should be asking, how the use of a technology solution will impact society?
The excitement for new technology solutions and companies should be accompanied by a form of scrutiny that can cushion society against technology harms.