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Why are we all campaigning for a huge corporation like Uber?

A click campaign on this scale such as #SaveYourUber feels surreal – a tech firm flexing muscle and calling on a city’s people to confront government

There’s currently a petition with nearly 800,000 signatures on that’s gained more traction than petitions calling for stricter regulation on the sale of acid after a spate of acid attacks in the city, ones demanding action against the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, or another lobbying for sprinklers to be fitted into all high-rise buildings after the horrific Grenfell disaster. The appeal is formatted in much the same way as a charitable campaign, but it’s not that – it’s citizens lobbying on behalf of big business.

#SaveYourUber is a campaign in which a Silicon Valley tech firm that was poised to have a monopoly on taxi travel in the world’s biggest cities asked consumers to support its battle with government. This type of “grassroots activism” is commonplace with big companies’ PR campaigns now, linking themselves neatly with a protest aesthetic, and it’s one that Uber has used before, using a platform designed for drawing attention to actual injustices.

The wording of the appeal spearheaded an ‘us vs them’ sentiment between people and state. “By wanting to ban our app from the capital, Transport for London and their chairman, the Mayor, have given into a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice,” the petition reads, going on to argue that their service is as safe as it is cost-effective. 

Whether Uber should stay, operating as it does, is another matter – but the feel and look of this protest is unnerving, nearly a million Londoners campaigning on behalf of a Silicon Valley tech firm, one whose former CEO only recently stepped down from Donald Trump’s business advisory council, and one that recently updated its Terms and Conditions to mean that any information about you that the app collects can be used to “inform you about elections, ballots, referenda and other political processes that relate to our services”.

Uber turned over £23.3m in the UK in 2016, yet it barely paid any tax, and consequently the rush to lobby on behalf of a corporation feels like an odd moment in our relationship with capitalism, a point where it moved way beyond complicity. Uber’s service is undeniably on the whole good, although it’s a concept that can be easily replicated by TfL, meaning that the money would go back into London rather than Silicon Valley.

Uber “door-knocked” its users to drum up support, sending emails and pop-up notifications within the app to encourage people to sign the petition, while CEO Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted asking London’s people for help.

Many echoed the company’s arguments, saying that convenience, costing and safety concerns were their reasons for wanting to keep Uber’s fleet on the streets. But two out of the four reasons given by TfL directly address safety. The licence is under threat because of the company's approach to “reporting serious criminal offences”, and “how Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks are obtained”. The company’s resistance to imposing proper checks on their drivers and investigating allegations of sexual assault are well documented. An FOI showed the Metropolitan Police investigated 32 drivers for rape or sexual assault of a passenger between May 2015 to May 2016. The company continued to employ one of the drivers after they had already been reported – he then went on to assault another female passenger.

“Uber is a huge international corporation. People need to not conflate the friendly face of the drivers who get them home after a night out with the company as a whole”

To argue that the uproar is in support of the 40,000 employees who may be left without a job, as many have, takes some impressive collective amnesia – Uber has a terrible record on worker’s rights and has aggressively campaigned to make sure that their workers are classified as self-employed legally, and are now claiming to be on the side of workers when there's their bottom line at stake. Having found a loophole by classing its staff as ‘self-employed’ some drivers don’t make minimum wage and aren’t entitled to things like sick pay. Pair this with the huge strides that the company is making towards getting rid of drivers and substituting them for automated driverless vehicles, those protesting the move are willingly blind to the company's disregard for staff.

The reportedly toxic “bro-culture” environment of the head offices has led to several lawsuits relating to discrimination, sexual harassment and intellectual property theft, all of which forced Travis Kalanick to step down as CEO, and bleeds right through the company structure. It has been criticised for capitalising on the taxi strike that occurred after Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, and the former CEO had even closer links to one of the dodgiest US governments in recent memory having stood on Trump’s economic advisory council until another online boycott against the company.

Uber is huge and rapidly expanding. People need to not conflate the friendly face of the drivers who get them home after a night out (on the cheap) with the company as a whole. With its lax attitude towards laws, rights and tax, it is quite surreal to watch people actively campaign on behalf of a faceless corporation.

It cannot be a law unto itself, but the petition seems to argue the opposite. Newer businesses and apps look up to Uber and its business model as an example of where capitalism is going. If it’s business practices are left unchecked it will become the blueprint for companies looking to replicate the app’s success. Unregulated and precarious work where the business isn’t technically your employer, inadequate pay, no formal support – if this isn’t what you want for your own future then think of your role in propping up these practices.

When the government finally steps in to regulate big business it can be nothing but a positive. The ban is likely to make the wealthy upper echelons of the company start thinking about the human lives impacted by their app, rather than the money that can be saved by cutting corners. The CEO has released an apology to admit: “we got things wrong,” showing the ban was the wake-up call Uber.

But maybe we need one too. Of course, we all use Uber and turn a blind eye to the stories we read because it’s easy. However lending your name to that petition is obstructing the very thing we call for governments to do. We’re used to letting companies take advantage of people for more money, something the fast fashion and tech worlds skirt constantly.

Each person who comes out to defend Uber rather than question it is sending a message to government that international businesses don’t have to follow guidelines that domestic companies are bound by. We can’t be quick to call companies out for advertising, lack of diversity, and malpractice, but turn a blind eye when it's time to boycott your favourite brand and its pitiful track record. When we side with big companies over human lives we’ve turned a dark corner. We can’t only be woke when it’s convenient.