It’s a question that doesn’t have a pretty answer. Since its inception, Uber has been a company that has surrounded itself in controversy. While much of it has been closer to its home in the US, even here in Sri Lanka the global unicorn has had its fair share of issues. But with a string of incidents involving drivers and a lack of response from the company, one can’t help but wonder whether if the next Uber ride they take will be their last.
Uber’s history of dangerous drivers in Sri Lanka
On the 24th of November 2019, Mahesh Pieries took a ride in an Uber Tuk and shared in a Facebook post, how the driver had unexpectedly begun acting violently and spoke abusively over an inquiry. Feeling unsafe, he requested the driver to stop. What unfolded next was a scene of horror.
Describing the ordeal, Mahesh shared, “The driver scolded me in filth, stopped the tuk, grabbed me by my shirt collar, and smashed my head on the steel bars, which separated the driver from the passenger seating area. I remember feeling dizzy & falling. I then woke up at the Sri Jayawardenapura Hospital. To my luck, a kind person had discovered me lying on the road bleeding and had called an ambulance.”
The doctors diagnosed him with a head injury. Despite being discharged, the doctors informed him, “it would take a couple of weeks to heal but at a very high risk of infection reaching the brain.” His family would complain to the Thalangama Police Station. However, both Mahesh and the police found it shockingly challenging to reach Uber’s support team regarding the matter.
There’s no doubt, Mahesh’s horrific ordeal is one from a nightmare. Sadly, this is not an isolated case for there are other ugly cases involving Uber drivers. Earlier in May, Twitter user @seniinthebox shared a story of sexual harassment, which occurred to a friend of hers, who had taken an Uber ride home. After this ride, the driver continuously harassed her with a barrage of missed calls for months. Yet, things would get worse from here.
She later learned that the Uber driver had shared her number in a secret WhatsApp group called, “Babes”. Before long she was flooded with messages and calls from different men harassing her. Before this, she reported the driver to Uber. In response, the company merely prevented the driver from connecting with her again. That’s it, without even taking a minute to wonder if this was happening to other women using its app.
An Uber customer support failure
Last year, bakamoono.lk shared the story of another woman, who went through a similar haunting ordeal. Here was another case where a woman who merely reminded her Uber driver how taxis work. In response, the driver proceeded to send a barrage of text messages verbally abusing her and threatening her with rape.
Naturally, she lodged a complaint through the Uber app. At first, an Indian Uber representative got in touch with her for more information. Soon after, the issue was marked as resolved with no explanation. After a frustrating visit to the Colpetty Police Station, which was met with indifference. It was only after she shared her story on social media that Uber responded. While ignoring they’d tried to sweep the issue under the rug, they informed her that the driver was suspended and being investigated.
Since then, Uber has now introduced a feature that hides the phone numbers of both the driver and rider. In theory, this would prevent stories like those shared by bakamoono.lk and @seniinthebox from ever occurring again. Yet, in practice, this feature has only served to show us just how flawed Uber’s support system is in Sri Lanka.
This was something @DinikiFernando found out the hard way just a few short weeks ago. She had forgotten to take her handbag at the end of her ride. By the time she realised this, her Uber was long gone. She was forced to lodge a complaint through the app but received no response. Later, she contacted Uber’s hotline for driver support and was met with rude indifference to her pleas. Forced to take matters into her own hands, she found the contact details of the driver and received her handbag. However, when she looked in her wallet, her money was missing and the driver gave conflicting excuses.
What Uber has said in response
Based on all the above cases, we can see much of the issues were due to the support team ride hailing giant being unreachable. Even when the support team was reachable, the riders were met with inadequate responses. So we reached out to the Uber team in Colombo to better understand how they address customer complaints.
Soon afterwards, a representative from their PR agency contacted us to answer our questions on Uber’s behalf. While they answered some of our initial questions, it should be noted that they denied answering any of our followup questions. This section details what we learned from them during our brief exchange.
Naturally, our first question was to understand the process the company has in place to vet its drivers. The representative shared with ReadMe that any driver wishing to work with Uber has to provide several details. This list includes their full name, date of birth, valid driver’s license, vehicle registration, and insurance.
However, Uber’s local PR agency representative admitted, “The reality is, driver verification is not perfect – local records are not updated and courthouses often don’t communicate.” He went onto say, “And this is exactly why our approach to safety does not start and end with verification, we focus on safety before, during, and after a trip in ways that were never possible before through our tech innovation.”
Understanding Uber’s community guidelines
When asked about what community guidelines Uber drivers must follow, the representative directed us to the community guidelines webpages on their website, which is available in both Sinhala and English. Describing these outlines, the representative shared, “These guidelines outline how we do not tolerate any conduct, language, or gestures that is disrespectful or unsafe on the platform.”
Interestingly, as we went through these guidelines, we found that a section with safety tips for riders. Yet, even when you click this link on the page with the guidelines in Sinhala, you’ll find this particular section to be only available in English. Further, it should be noted that these guidelines are not available in Tamil for Sri Lanka. A surprising misstep for a company with a global footprint like Uber.
Of course, upon analysis of Uber’s community guidelines, it’s clear as day that in all the above cases, the drivers had violated them. So what exactly happens when drivers violate these guidelines?
In response to this question, Uber’s local PR agency shared, “Drivers and riders who violate these guidelines risk losing access to Uber. If there is a clear violation of the safety standards set by our community guidelines, and we immediately removed the driver’s access to the app once the incident was brought to our notice.”
Their representative added, “With any serious report of that nature, we immediately block the person’s access to Uber while we investigate the matter, which includes speaking with both the rider and driver involved. We also work with the police to support their investigation by sharing information such as the GPS record of trips and rider or driver information, to assist them with their investigation.”
When Uber decided to be silent
Finally, one of the last questions Uber’s PR agency answered for us was regarding the company’s support team. Their representative stated, “We have a dedicated 24/7 customer support team ready to help with any issues, whether it’s a traffic accident or a lost purse. High-quality customer service is something we strive for every day.”
He added, “We also have a team of former law enforcement professionals who are on call to work with police 24/7 to respond to urgent needs and walk them through how we can assist in an investigation.” This includes, Uber’s local police liaison team, which he stated was in touch with the police regarding Mahesh Pieries’ incident.
After sharing this with us, they declined to comment on any further questions. The list of declined questions includes whether the company has a dedicated customer service hotline and what the company was doing to tackle the issues women faced with the service.
A dedicated hotline has been something that many have called for in light of the company’s recent failures. Interestingly, UberEATS, the company’s food delivery arm has a dedicated customer service hotline. One that’s hidden well in the app inside its support section. In case you need it, the number is 0117589100. Yet, this begs the question as to why Uber can’t have a hotline for its core ride-hailing business?
Uber’s silence fuels tensions between drivers & riders
Of course, when one talks about the company’s customer support failures, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room. It’s an open secret that Uber drivers detest accepting card payments. Many have now begun the practice of cancelling the hire, even after coming to the pickup location the moment they know it will be paid by card.
The drivers we’ve encountered justified this by saying that the company takes at least a week to realize card payments. For customers, card payments are convenient. Simply get into the vehicle, get to your destination, and walk out. For Uber, it means instantaneous revenue. But it’s the drivers that have gotten the short end of the stick as they have several expenses to bear, so that 1 week may seem like an eternity.
As the local Uber team declined to answer our follow-up questions, we didn’t get a chance to ask them regarding this issue. We did send this question to Uber’s global press team and will update the article if we get a response.
However, as it stands, Uber has been silent on the matter. As a result, tensions have risen and it is the customers who are unfairly facing the brunt of the issue. Often they’ll see this manifest in the form of their ride getting cancelled without any notice. Unless the ride hailing giant addresses this issue, one can pessimistically argue that things will only get worse.
Of course, no form of violence or abuse is ever justified. The company needs to have systems in place to prevent such drivers from joining its platform in the first place. But as it stands the ride-hailing giant is silent. So as more drivers view this issue as a rallying cry, it is the customers that will suffer, quite possibly to the extent Mahesh did.
But this is nothing new
Recently, Uber released its US safety report. This is the first time it has publicly released a comprehensive report on its safety record. You can find the executive summary here and the full report here. We have to commend Uber on its transparency.
But the numbers paint a very ugly picture. The report takes data from rides in the US between 2017 and 2018. In that time, there were over 3,000 cases of sexual assault in the US alone. Of these, 235 in 2018 were classified as, “Non-Consensual Sexual Penetration” aka rape. In the report, Uber highlights in bold that this occurred in approximately 1 in 5,000,000 completed trips, which is 0.00002% of all rides in that time frame.
The report makes similar statements about other forms of sexual assault as well. The company wants to emphasize that such incidents have only occurred in a tiny number of rides. Yet, on Page 18 there is a paragraph, where the company admits the truth about sexual assault: it often goes unreported. So as it takes initiatives like releasing the safety report, the ride-hailing giant expects more incidents to be reported in the future.
The solution may not be more tech but less
The report goes onto highlight some of the safety features Uber has built into its app. These are positive steps forward towards solving a larger problem. Yet, when analysed from a Sri Lankan lens, one can argue that the ideal solution is a less technical one.
Uber states that it has a 24/7 dedicated support team to address rider complaints. In practice, as we’ve seen from the cases above, contacting this team through the app has proven to be less than effective. At the time of writing, the company has a dedicated customer support hotline for UberEATS.
Therefore, it seems appropriate for it to set up another hotline for its core ride hailing business. Granted, this would merely ensure that the ride hailing giant is more reachable in Sri Lanka. For an issue to be resolved promptly requires its customer support team to act swiftly.
As Murphy’s law states, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” and this applies to all ride-hailing services. It’s not exclusive to Uber. But when something goes wrong with Uber, it’d be nice to have a number to call and a human being on the other end working to quickly solve the issue.