Talking about the role of the company in society seems repetitive and tedious, but it seems that repeating it countless times is not enough if we continue to learn about bad practices from the private sector, which in turn tarnish the actions of conscientious companies.
The issue seems urgent. It is no longer a question of the role that companies will play in the future, because their commitment is needed today, when we are experiencing a major crisis of trust, attacks on democracy, the proliferation of populism and fake news. It is time for companies to understand that their role can be decisive in helping to reduce the levels of corruption, to achieve a more upright world that thrives towards social sustainability.
The urgency is greater in the midst of the era of technological disruption, where through innovation, companies are constantly emerging that offer products or services that we had not even imagined, solving our daily lives and making us dependent on them.
At the same time, these companies grow so fast that we often fail to realize that it is us, as customers, suppliers, community and stakeholders in general, who have the power to demand changes in their behavior when we are aware that something does not fit.
And a concrete example, which we have known about for years, but have turned a blind eye to, is Uber, the transportation platform that revolutionized the way we get around. Since its existence, the company has been in the limelight given the lack of regulation, which led to its services being illegal in many countries. It was the established cab drivers who took to the streets to fight for their rights, because despite the convenience of the service for us -the users-, this was a direct detriment to their work. In fact, all of us (including me), have been willing to break the law in countries where Uber is illegal, just because the result is better, because we justify our actions under the excuse that competition is bad or legislation is outdated.
This information is not new and has been the subject of documentaries and reports, but what the recent leak of the Uber Files – the new journalistic investigation led by The Guardian and worked on by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), based on 83,000 text messages, including SMS and WhatsApp, and 124,000 internal documents – reveals surpasses the imagination.
These documents reveal the bad practices incurred by Uber to operate in several countries, where lobbying in high spheres of power, circumvention of police and regulators’ controls, evasion of taxes and labor rights of its drivers, harming its smaller competitors and the concessioned cab industry, among other unethical behaviors, which would demonstrate that for the company, the end justifies the means.
When accusing that Uber has made lobbying its modus operandi, it is not exaggerating. The same investigation arises thanks to documents leaked by Mark MacGann, a lobbyist for the company who managed to influence the current President of France, Emmanuel Macron, when he was Minister of Economy, to reverse the veto against the application in that country. In his mea culpa, MacGann said: “My job was to build relationships with the top level of government and negotiate”.
And so the leaked documents show. Lobbyists with wide access, including former presidential advisors, gained access to public officials and even Russian oligarchs close to Putin, offering discounts on cab rides, very high-level meals, free political campaign work, plus campaign contributions, and other gifts and perks. In return, the lobbyists reportedly received company stock and bonuses when they successfully lobbied government officials to drop their investigations, rewrite labor and cab laws, or relax background checks for drivers.
We have all been passively complicit in these malpractices. For this reason, I believe it is necessary to repeat ad nauseam that the role of the company in society is essential, especially the technological ones, which have so much power, to the level of knowing everything about us.
Thus, there are two paths: companies can choose to do things right and decide to be a contribution to today’s society, and even -although it sounds naive- put an end to corruption; or they can take the easy path under the slogan that it is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission, perpetuating the crisis of trust, in which we have little left to hold on to.
Today Uber says that bad practices are a thing of the past. Let’s hope so, and that they prove it with facts. Likewise, that the accusations are thoroughly investigated and that the company pays the consequences. For our part, we must understand that how business is done is as or more important than the outcome.
By: Susana Sierra in La Tercera