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The Uber partnership with U.N. Women that wasn’t

Credit: bfishadow/flickr

A partnership between the U.N.’s women’s agency and Uber fell apart as suddenly as it seemed to come together. Less than a fortnight after the U.S.-based taxi service issued a statement touting its goal to employ women, U.N. Women announced it was not collaborating with the company.

“I want to assure you that not only are we listening, we are aligned,” said U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in a speech. “And I also want to assure you that U.N. Women will not accept the offer to collaborate on job creation with Uber. So you can rest assured about that.”

The remarks delivered by Mlambo-Ngcuka serve to distance U.N. Women from the controversial company. But there is little evidence to suggest that the two ever formed any sort of formal partnership in the first place.

Uber sponsored an event held by U.N. Women that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action. The event focused on the global effort to reach gender equity by 2030, called Planet 50-50. During the ceremonies Uber announced a commitment to create 1 million jobs for women globally by 2020. Users of the service were sent an email announcing a partnership with U.N. Women to achieve the goal.

“This important mission can only be accomplished when all women have direct access to safe and equitable earning opportunities,” according to the email. “We look forward to a partnership where U.N. Women and Uber will drive more access to these types of opportunities around the world.”

The statement in the email and on Uber’s website is signed by Mlambo-Ngcuka and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. It was met with a swift backlash. People questioned why the U.N. would partner with an organization that engages in questionable business practices and does not do enough to protect its passengers.

One woman in Delhi said her Uber driver took her to a secluded area after she fell asleep in the car and raped her. A lawsuit filed by her in January against Uber seeks to hold the company accountable for the rape. There are other examples of assaults by drivers. Charges were filed against two drivers in Chicago earlier this year. It does not get much better for female Uber drivers, as cases of harassment by customers have recently emerged.

Additional criticism came from global trade unions who are concerned by Uber’s model of part-time labor. A letter signed by the AFL-CIO, Unifor and others said U.N. Women should reconsider its partnership with Uber, deploying the hash tag #UNWomenDumpUber.

“By classifying drivers as ‘independent contractors’, Uber denies them basic protections, from minimum wage pay to health care and other benefits on the job. Women already make up a high proportion of the precarious work force, and increasing informal, piecemeal work contributes significantly to women’s economic disempowerment and marginalization across the globe,” argued the groups.

Not long after, U.N. Women made it clear that it was not in fact partnering with Uber. However, based on people attending the event and statements from U.N. Women, it appears that the touted partnership did not exist.

“Beyond this event, we have not discussed opportunities to engage with Uber, including in the context of their commitment to create 1 million jobs for women in the next five years. At this point, we do not plan to expand the collaboration,” U.N. Women Senior Communications and Media Specialist Oisika Chakrabarti said in an interview with Fast Company.

Both U.N. Women and Uber are offering little information to explain what actually happened. What we do know is Uber’s attempt to turn around its troubled public image through a pledge to employ more women was not met with the response they expected. And for U.N. Women, people will respond quickly and vocally to partnerships they deem to be problematic.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.