Uber troubles: Between profit and promised security in Egypt
Courtesy: Uber Egypt's Facebook page

On the morning of New Year’s Eve, 32-year-old Mai al-Monim drove her car to where she felt was a safe spot to call an Uber to work — something that she had done as a usual daily routine.  A car pulls up and in a rush, she hops in without checking the license plates or the driver’s information on the app. Minutes later, she receives an unexpected call from a man claiming to be her real Uber driver, who warns her that the Uber she had taken could be a fraud.  She pleads with the driver to stop the car, but the driver, a bearded man in his 50s, only repeats one line: “I work for Uber.”

Monim then opens the car door and jumps out of the moving vehicle, sustaining no injuries. As she ran away, the driver blankly stared back. “He didn’t run, nor did he come out of the car to try to explain or justify what was going on,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘He either wanted to hurt me or steal my car.’”

Monim’s ordeal is one of several incidents in recent months where women have seen the culture of safety that Uber advertises and users praise it for breached. Egyptian women who use Uber have reported and shared accounts on social media of attempted kidnapping, harassment, driver impersonation, desertion and theft. While it is unclear how widespread these incidents are in Egypt, Uber has been plagued by similar incidents in France, China, Canada, and Saudi Arabia. In India, a woman reported being raped, sparking widespread protests.

The company’s workplace culture has also come under fire recently in the United States amid a stream of internal scandals involving sexual harassment that prompted company CEO Travis Kalanick to step down and nearly a dozen top executives and 20 employees to be fired.

While Uber claims to foster a culture aimed at dealing with gendered violence and providing safety to riders, women in particular, these breaches shake the foundation of this narrative. And in Egypt, where safety is increasingly a commodity for purchase amid a collapsing social fabric, Uber troubles raise questions about how well the market logics of securitization work, when they pit profit and growth against a culture of safety and accountability.

Transport safety and liberalization in Egypt

Egypt remains one of the Uber’s fastest growing markets globally. Unlike elsewhere around the world, it faced no real stiff competition locally when it was introduced in Egypt in November of 2014. Cheaper than Careem and white taxis, Uber has a flag-down rate of LE6 and charges an additional LE1.85 per km and LE0.25 per minute, compared to Careem’s LE4.5 and LE1.80 per km, and the white taxi’s irregular, often tampered metering. And while hikes in vehicle and fuel prices continue apace, Uber raised its fares only twice, most recently after fuel prices were hiked a few weeks ago.

Perhaps Uber’s most attractive quality, one for which it is praised by users, is its promise of safety and a harassment-free ride, especially for women who disproportionately face harassment on public transportation and transit. In one of Uber’s ads, a smiling woman wrapped in a black hijab and sandy abaya looks out through an open car door. The caption reads, “Ride while feeling safe.”

However, a potential stray away from safety may have many factors, chief among which is that its rapid expansion and rollout in Egypt has left it prey to the brute market forces of unregulated competition, liberalization that transportation companies like Uber helped bring about. And given Egypt’s current dire economic situation, Uber has attracted a surplus of labor and car dealers. In September 2016, Uber poured LE500 million in investments into its Egyptian affiliate. Over the next two years, the plan was to open a regional support center, launch a project to support drivers with vehicles — that they would pay for with their profits — and expand their training center.

With these moves, Uber raised demand exponentially. Saeed al-Masry, the general manager of Fares Limousine Egypt, one of Uber’s contractors, told Mada Masr that, since the expansion, “everyone ganged up to join [Uber],” causing a drop in its quality of service. Uber outsources certain tasks to car and limousine dealers or renting companies, including completing a screening process for new drivers.  To get more drivers to sign up, these locally contracted companies rent cars to drivers unable to front the cost of a private car for a small percentage of their fare. When the demand for new drivers increases, so do these middle companies. Masry adds that many local contractors looking to turn a profit opened offices just to service transportation companies such as Uber and Careem.

“There were suddenly a lot of competitors, and Uber was not necessarily ready for them,” he says.

 A local contractor, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that the number of contracting offices jumped from around 40 offices to more than 100 in early 2016.  These offices regard Uber as a business opportunity, he adds, but they do not necessarily understand or care to uphold its standards. As one of the earlier offices to work with Uber, the contractor’s business has been harmed by the sudden flood of rivals.

“I used to be number one in this business,” he says. “Now I know an ex-driver of mine who started up his own office and another who works out of a coffee shop.” 

Uber told Mada Masr that it set a new international benchmark by adding a crop of 6,500 new drivers between July and October of last year. By some estimates, new drivers are joining at a rate of 2,000 a week. And because of a worse-off economy, drivers who were now joining Uber are making it their full time work, according to local contractors, rather than for extra spending money as Uber’s business model suggests.

A recent survey conducted by Nagla Rizk, economics professor at the American University in Cairo, and commissioned by Uber revealed that the company has created almost 40,000 jobs that were filled by the same youth demographic that suffers the highest rate of unemployment, reported at 19.2 percent.

To be able to tap into the potential of Uber’s application,  drivers must not show signs of drug use or have a criminal record, in addition to undergoing safety workshops. However, Mada Masr learned that Uber recently started outsourcing training and screening to certain trusted local contractors, which the company monitors either by video conferencing or sending representatives to attend.  According to one contractor who spoke on condition of anonymity, Uber instructed contractors to interview applicants and gave them full license to determine if drivers complied with standards. However, this extra level of clearance is not necessarily regulated or streamlined across Uber’s contracting offices and some may neglect conducting an interview altogether. Also, the way Uber monitors its contractors, which is to get collective feedback from its employee drivers, does not do much to ensure these interactions are continued, the contractor says.

Uber’s response

Shomou Salah’s story went viral after she appeared on TV to recount how she was sexually harassed by an Uber driver. After the driver exposed his genitals to her, she demanded to be let out, a request that the driver granted. Salah tells Mada Masr that she does not trust Uber’s hiring requirements. “If things were better regulated by Uber,” she tells Mada Masr, “this wouldn’t have happened.”  

According to Uber’s protocol, a driver’s account is suspended once there is a report of harassment pending investigation. Other safety measures Uber has put in place for safety-related emergencies include an “Incident Response Team” that is deployed when Uber receives reports that a driver or rider has acted dangerously or inappropriately. “We suspend their account, preventing him or her from accessing the platform while we investigate,” Abdellatif Waked, the general manager of Uber Egypt tells Mada Masr. In some cases, Uber also works with law enforcement. 

Women Mada Masr spoke to reported a lack of accountability in the company’s approach to combating violence and harassment. For example, an Uber representative told Salah that she would not be notified should the company decide to fire the driver.

Others said that Uber did not adequately address their grievances — many citing Uber’s unsympathetic and slow response. Nada Saad argued with an Uber manager after a series of events that went awry, beginning with her driver forcing her out of the car before her trip could end. She sent Uber three emails and a fourth through her friend, but she did not receive a response. That night, she posted on Facebook her failed dealings with Uber, and sought a manager’s number. When she spoke to him, he was “stubborn, gruff and unsympathetic,” and later began threatening her to remove her Facebook post. “I was defamed and a lot of people attacked me. When any girl raises her voice because of something like this, this is what happens to her.” Saad received a formal email that an internal investigation was launched and that Uber allegedly fired her driver.

Monim, Salah, and Saad still use Uber. For them, there are no alternatives. Monim lives in a remote location. However, if Uber wants to remain a viable option for Egyptian women, it needs to confront a dissipating culture of safety that is being overshadowed by its obsessive demands for growth.

Nadeen Shaker