Uber partnership with UN women's group hits dead end

Women's rights group UN Women says that though the car-hailing service did sponsor one of its events, there was no talk of a partnership on job creation for women.

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UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. She says there will be no partnership with Uber on jobs for women. Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images

It looks like a United Nations group devoted to women's rights won't be partnering with controversial car-hailing service Uber after all.

"UN Women will not accept an offer to collaborate on job creation with Uber, so you can rest assured about that," the group's executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, said last week during an event at the UN's 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59), which wrapped up Friday in New York after a two-week run. A short clip of Mlambo-Ngcuka's remark surfaced on YouTube earlier this week.

Uber, which has been attacked as both exploitative of workers and sexist, had trumpeted the partnership March 10, the day after the CSW59 conference started. A company blog item featured a statement credited to Mlambo-Ngcuka and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, which read in part that "we intend to invest in long-term programs in local communities where we live and work, as Uber commits to creating 1,000,000 jobs for women globally on the Uber platform by 2020."

Mlambo-Ngcuka's remark at CSW59 came on March 13, three days after Uber's announcement and a day after a statement at the conference by a coalition led by global labor unions. That statement, criticizing the collaboration, said in part that "the creation of 1 million precarious, informal jobs will not contribute to women's economic empowerment and represents exactly the type of structural inequality within the labor market that the women's movement has been fighting for decades."

Uber makes a smartphone app that sidesteps taxicabs and provides a connection between people who want a ride and de facto cab drivers who pilot their own vehicles. Critics, including city governments and taxi companies, say Uber flouts transportation laws and tries to force its way into markets with little regard for rider safety or driver well-being. The company says it's simply providing an innovative way for communities to improve transportation and that its service gives people a way to make money as their own bosses, on their own terms.

In the past, Uber has estimated that its drivers in New York City make $90,000 a year on average. But that claim has been contested, and more-recent data from Uber leaves remuneration uncertain. Some say Uber and rival services like Lyft are taking advantage of workers, because they treat them as independent contractors and don't pay health insurance and other benefits, or reimburse expenses like gas and maintenance.

"A lot of their success is built on the backs of the drivers," Shannon Liss-Riordan, an attorney representing drivers in a California-based lawsuit against the company, has said. "And a lot of the money that they are making stems from a scheme whereby the company is able to shift to its workers many of the costs of running a business." Uber is a venture-backed company, and with a valuation of $41 billion, it's the world's second-highest valued.

The company has also been criticized as sexist, and several female riders in different spots around the world have alleged that they were raped or otherwise attacked by Uber drivers.

In a statement sent to various news outlets, UN Women clarified its situation with Uber, saying the company had sponsored an event devoted to a historic 1995 conference for advancing women's rights.

"Uber has provided sponsorship for UN Women's event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action: 'Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality,'" the statement says. "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.

Uber said the following, in a statement sent to news sites:

"Uber was proud to sponsor the UN Women event last week, and we share their vision of accelerating economic opportunity for women globally. As part of our commitment to this vision, Uber set an ambitious goal to create 1 million jobs for women as drivers on the Uber platform by 2020. Uber will be seeking advice from UN Women and groups around the world on the best way to achieve the important goal of economic equality and opportunity for women."

Here's a short clip of Mlambo-Ngcuka's remark at CSW59, posted to YouTube earlier by PSIglobalunion, a global trade union federation. Her full speech can be seen in the third video here (it starts at about 1:56:30).