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Boycotts are not effective in stopping exploitative companies

ByAmber Murray

Sep 27, 2017

Uber has had a wild ride these past few months. Faced with sexual harassment allegations, the resignation of its chief executive, and a federal investigation, it is staring down the barrel of media alienation.

Now it is facing another setback – the loss of its London license due to ‘lack of corporate responsibility.’ This comes only days after being speared on Twitter for the publication of a sexist advert for Uber eats which told men to ‘let your wife take a day off from the kitchen.’ Uber is undeniably a less than ideal figurehead for the gig economy – where workers are paid per ‘gig’ rather than per hour.

In spite of this, calls to boycott Uber are based on false assumptions that a slight dip in Uber’s profits will be the silver bullet into the heart of the gig economy, with the result that Uber (and all other tech start-ups) suddenly change their exploitative ways. In fact, by boycotting Uber, we aren’t solving anything, except perhaps a guilty conscience.

The biggest boycott of Uber so far – the #deleteuber campaign on Twitter earlier this year – resulted in over 200,000 users deleting their account. However, this is hardly a dent in Uber’s estimated 40 million monthly active riders.
Of course, if everyone in the UK or America suddenly upped and deleted their Uber accounts, Uber would sit up and listen. But they haven’t yet, and they won’t soon. In truth, boycotts can rarely be anything more than a short-term solution to a long-term issue. In January this year, although there were over 66 active boycotts in the UK, it is likely that most people would be hard pressed to remember two.

In fact, when one of the most successful boycotts of the 21st century, the 2003 boycott of French wines, caused an initial 23 per cent drop in sales, within six months sales returned to previous levels.

The social stance that Uber appears to be taking is worrying, and a sexist advertisement barely scratches the surface.

In 2015, 50 lawsuits were filed against the company in US federal court from both employees and users of the service. These issues are not just confined to Uber, either. Other companies within the gig economy, and outside it, have faced similar controversies.

Earlier this year, Audi decided to compare buying a vehicle to finding a wife, and KitchenAid came under serious fire on Twitter for tweeting negative remarks about Obama in a tweet that was later removed. The problem is that boycotts do not address the root of the problems in companies – they are too often based simply on poor company PR.

The #deleteuber campaign was set off after Uber tweeted that it had disabled surge pricing near JFK Airport in light of the NYTWA strike against Trump’s immigration ban. Lyft subsequently sent out an email condemning the immigration ban and promising to donate one million dollars to the ACLU over a four-year period.

These actions showed a seemingly clear contrast between Uber and Lyft and encouraged many people to switch. As a result, Lyft’s app surpassed Uber in daily downloads for the first time.

But in reality, the two companies have almost identically poor records in exploiting workers with low wages and poor benefits. The only difference is that Lyft has a better PR team.

Ultimately, we all have a responsibility to help solve issues of corporate sexism, racism and exploitation, particularly in the poorly regulated gig economy. Nevertheless, boycotting is undeniably the wrong way forward. It serves no discernable long-term purpose, and distracts from the root of the problems within modern day corporations, by letting companies know that the most important thing is not how they act, but how they present themselves on social media.


Image: Casey Linenberg

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