As an hour-long introductory session concludes, the instructor grows somber, even intimidating. “She is ‘ma’am.’ Remember that,” says the slight man to a crowd of new recruits—all men—for Careem, a car chauffeur service that launched in Pakistan last October. “She is not gurriya (doll) or jaani (sweetheart). She is only ‘ma’am,’” he adds. A slide behind him changes to a list of Dos and Don’ts. “Do not stare at the female passengers”; “Do not play loud music”; “Do not initiate conversation”; “Do not comment on her clothes.” Scattered giggles break the silence. “We will send you to prison,” the instructor warns to negate the levity. “We will find you. We will track you down. Three of our former employees are behind bars today. You know why? For inappropriate behavior.”
“No one has actually been arrested,” a young employee adds sotto voce, as he prepares for the next session at a makeshift three-storey office in Lahore. A long queue of men gathers around him to complete application forms. “But you have to be stern. Harassment is no laughing matter.”
The U.A.E.-based Careem is an on-demand ride-sharing service that connects passengers with drivers through a mobile phone app. In addition to Careem, three other ride-share services, including San Francisco-based Uber, which launched in April, are currently available in Pakistan. Industry insiders predict app-based chauffeur services in Pakistan to quickly grow from a niche sector to a major industry worth $14 billion. “Karachi has been the fastest growing city for Uber in the entire MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region,” says Zohair Yousafi, head of expansion at Uber Pakistan. “Lahore is the third fastest. It’s impressive. Pakistan is a big potential market.”
Of the services available, Careem and Uber are the current market leaders with thousands of cars ferrying customers in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. Barely a year in service, both multinational companies have thrived, owed in part to the shortage of public transport in Pakistan’s urban centers. In the first two weeks of July alone, Uber boasted 65,000 active riders. In October, that number had shot to 125,000. The company claims drivers who do up to 12 trips a day can earn anywhere from Rs. 70,000 to Rs. 100,000 per month.
Uber’s under-construction, multi-storey office in Lahore is packed to capacity five days a week. On one Tuesday afternoon, at least 80 men were in attendance, hurriedly moving from one desk to another with their national identification cards. Uber says demand is so great, it must organize introductory sessions every 30 minutes—and even that is barely cutting it. It plans to expand its office space and include more training sessions to accommodate the interest.
But despite all efforts, the company is struggling with ensuring the safety of its passengers. Stories of harassment and victimization of Pakistani women are commonplace on social media. These echo global concerns over ride-sharing companies’ failure to ensure the safety of female passengers.
In October, a viral Facebook post detailed a young woman’s uncomfortable ride after she ordered an Uber in Lahore. The driver, she told Newsweek, repeatedly asked her who she was meeting so late in the evening and why. She ignored him until he slowed down his car, claiming to be running low on fuel. Panicking, she began dialing her friends and had the driver drop her at a nearby relative’s house. “He dropped me to my second location safe and sound, but as he was leaving he turned up the music,” she says, “It does concern me that he still has my phone number.” The woman, who would prefer not to be identified, deleted her Facebook post after Uber contacted her and promised to investigate. “How do Uber and Careem plan to ensure the safety of all their passengers?”
In another such incident, Sara Ayub, 18, posted screenshots of the expletives and abusive messages a driver messaged her after she reached her destination. “Every time I leave my tuition center, I fear he’ll be standing outside,” she wrote on Facebook. “I’m scared he will track my number and come to my house,” she added. In one of his messages to Ayub, he wrote: “I’ll find you no matter what.”
A Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) report says there have been 26 cases of sexual harassment registered with police in 2016, but that number is misleading as many victims rarely report it. Ahsan Ali Asif, manager of programs and talent at RABTT, a Lahore-based social enterprise and Uber’s sexual harassment training partner, says, “A lot of young men don’t know what constitutes as harassment, what it is and what it isn’t.”
In response to public concerns about safety, Careem has suspended over a dozen drivers for a wide range of complaints. It now dedicates a few minutes of each training session to sexual harassment awareness. Uber claims it is doing the same, but Asif told Newsweek it has yet to organize a single seminar focused on sexual harassment. “We are still finalizing and talking,” says Asif. “We would want a long term partnership with Uber as it has a lot of potential.”
For now, Uber’s 20-minute training covers topics such as using its app, customer service and route navigation. It ends with a single, rudimentary slide defining harassment. The training is rushed, but the company insists it is working on a more comprehensive guide. That is a surprising admission considering Pakistan and Egypt are the only countries where Uber claims to educate drivers about sexual misconduct.
In 2014, the sexual assault of a woman in India caused uproar and a ban on Uber in Delhi. Following more stringent checks on drivers and the introduction of an in-app panic button, the ban has since been repealed. Since then, Uber has returned to work in 28 Indian cities. To prevent similar issues in Pakistan, Uber says it thoroughly screens all candidates. Background checks are mandatory for new drivers, including any criminal records or motor vehicle violations. The company has been working with the National Database and Registration Authority, police and even the military to ensure its drivers are up to the mark.
“When you get into a rickshaw or taxi, you don’t know who the driver is,” says Uber Pakistan’s Yousafi. “Has he been through any training? Is his car verified? So when we say we do all these checks, it is to ensure that Uber is currently the safest option out there. Of course, there is always room for improvement, but it is better than doing nothing all.”
But Careem insists it is doing a much better job. The rival company collects all applicants’ personal data and forwards it to a third-party security company, which in turn physically verifies each candidate’s address. “I can assure you that no other company is doing this,” says Junaid Iqbal, spokesman for Careem.
One factor that users claim places Uber at a significant disadvantage is lack of access. The company’s local website lacks a contact number, making it harder for customers to contact them in case of emergencies. Uber “doesn’t even have an officially registered number,” wrote Ayub on Facebook in September. “I even reached out to the PTCL helpline for their number but they only had Careem’s.”
One Uber driver, 45-year-old Abdullah, offers his services for 13 hours a day, earning roughly Rs. 17,000 a month. In a country where the minimum wage is Rs. 13,000, he considers it a good living. But he admits that he only visited the company’s offices once—for an introductory session that lasted an hour. Instead of owning his own vehicle and using it to make money via the ride-sharing site as is the global norm, Abdullah works for a local car rental company, which outsources its services to Uber. He says he’s paid a fixed salary and doesn’t make any direct money off his rides—regardless of how many or few there might be.
“I am not an Uber employee,” he tells Newsweek, “I only interact with my vendor. He told us [drivers] that we did not even need to sit through any of the Uber trainings, but I still went for a bit.”
This has become commonplace in Pakistan, where ownership of vehicles is traditionally the realm of the affluent—who don’t really need to peddle their wares to earn extra cash. Vendors in Pakistan, meanwhile, hope to use Pakistan’s lax labor laws to earn a healthy profit off drivers like Abdullah. During one training session at Uber, a vendor asked: “Is there a time limit to the hours a driver can spend on the road? Can he be made to work over 12 hours a day?”
Uber’s Yousafi admits keeping tabs on third-party recruits hasn’t been easy. “We’ve had issues with third-party vendors. It’s difficult for Uber to influence third parties because those drivers are their employees. However, the majority of our partners are direct partners.”
With Uber’s loose ties to third-party vendors, there is reason to believe not everyone will receive the training necessary to prevent sexual harassment. Lack of enforcement from the company can also make any training ineffective. A one-time, four-minute session is frivolous, says RABTT.
“There should be follow ups after every two months at the least,” says Asif. “We’re working on changing some of these mindsets and mentality, which have been there since childhood. It will take time.”
Unfortunately, big business doesn’t allow for that investment. Uber and Careem’s fight to expand their presence across Pakistan has come at the cost of ensuring adequate training is provided to all. For now, women in Pakistan agree on one fact: they are responsible for their own safety.
As one passenger Newsweek spoke to put it: “Both Uber and Careem are safe options. But would I take either after 8:00 p.m.? No.”