Why UN Women is pulling back from Uber partnership

The UN’s gender equality initiative has canceled a planned collaboration with the ride service after trade unions raised concerns over Uber’s treatment of women.

Eric Risberg/AP Photo/File
In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, a taxi on Market Street goes past the headquarters of Uber in San Francisco. On Friday, March 20, UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka pulled out of a planned collaboration with the ride-hailing service after a coalition of global trade unions complained of the company's history with women.

It looks like Uber will have to go elsewhere to fix its troubled reputation with women.

Concerns over the ride-sharing company’s perceived inability to protect female drivers and passengers from harassment has led UN Women, a gender equality initiative, to cancel a partnership with Uber that was announced two weeks ago.

“UN Women will not accept an offer to collaborate on job creation with Uber, so you can rest assured about that,” executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said Friday at the Commission on the Status of Women conference in New York City, where world leaders discussed next steps in achieving the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls.

The partnership was the main announcement at the conference’s opening March 10, the Guardian reported. The plan would have had UN Women and Uber working together “to create 1 million jobs for women as drivers on the Uber platform by 2020,” according to the company’s blog.

A coalition of trade unions responded to the proposed collaboration by pointing to the reports of harassment and assault that, on top of allegations of unfair pricing and breaches of privacy, have dogged the ride service.

“As unions and NGOs we find it astonishing that UN Women is linking to this organisation, based on a promise of a million jobs that we know are likely to be insecure, ill paid, and potentially unsafe,” Brigitta Paas, vice president of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a global union coalition that frequently challenges Uber, said during the conference.

“We urge the UN Women organisation to reconsider this announcement of their partnership with Uber without delay,” Ms. Paas added.

Uber operates out of 55 countries, and reports of harassment related to the service have surfaced from a number of them.

In the US, female Uber drivers have complained about harassment from passengers; one incident, reported by Buzzfeed, involved a customer who tracked his driver to her home using the Uber app’s “Lost and Found” feature. On the inverse, female passengers have also reported sexual assault by Uber drivers in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities.

In December, Indian police arrested an Uber driver for allegedly raping a female passenger in New Delhi. Later that month, South African singer-songwriter Nikki Williams tweeted to complain about her Uber driver’s behavior.

Uber has time and again apologized for these allegations and responded with changes, like when it added a “panic button” and tracking features to its app in India in February.

But the bad rap goes beyond customer and employee safety: In an interview with GQ magazine, top executive Travis Kalanick used the term “Boob-er” to describe how the startup has improved his success with women. Another incident involved an Uber office in France pairing riders with “hot chick” drivers in a quickly cancelled ad campaign.

As the Monitor's Schuyler Velasco put it when the UN partnership with Uber was first announced:

Incidents like those, combined with continued safety problems even after an announced revamp of its policies, have helped paint Uber as a company that either doesn’t get it or doesn’t really care. In perhaps the most damning indictment of the company yet, the New Delhi rape victim has publicly accused Uber of only making “cosmetic” changes that made women no safer, and refusing to meet with her and her lawyers to discuss safety reforms. "Until women can legitimately feel safe, we cannot obtain equality,” said the woman, who has been identified only as an executive in Delhi, in a statement released on National Women’s Day. “Sadly, Uber doesn't understand this."

An Uber spokesperson told Buzzfeed that the company plans to continue to pursue its goal of providing 1 million jobs for women worldwide by 2020, and that Uber shares UN Women's "vision of accelerating economic opportunity for women globally.

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