Focus/Spotlight

The dark side of e-commerce?

By Pujanee Galappaththi and Shanelle Bandara

Technology and e-commerce have become integral parts of our day-to-day lives in this digital era. Transactions have become much easier with platforms like Amazon and eBay, with many popping up every day. However, along with the pros come the cons and one such con that raised many concerns recently was an incident relating to the international food delivery platform Uber Eats.

A social media post titled “Consumer safety fail by Uber Eats Sri Lanka – our personal experience” has been rapidly circulating, raising concerns with regard to how Uber Eats Sri Lanka protects its consumers’ safety.

The incident

The social media post details the incident which took place on 1 August 2020. The author’s wife had ordered lunch from Uber Eats Sri Lanka. When the rider had handed over the order, he had requested the lady to hold the food so that he could take a picture of the items being delivered, as the platform generally requires them to take a picture. What was out of place was, however, that the rider had not taking a picture of the food, but only of the lady. Upon asking whether she could see the picture, the rider had already been on his bike, ready to take off, and she did not want to stir up a fuss, as she was alone at the time.

As soon as the rider had left, she had checked the Uber Eats app to see whether the picture has been uploaded to the order receipt as riders usually do. However, to her dismay, no such picture appeared, after which a complaint was immediately lodged regarding the incident.

A bit later on that same day, she had received two messages from Uber, stating that they would be in touch with her. Yet, a week goes by and there was no news of the incident or the complaint, despite multiple follow-ups being made. Fortunately, through a personal connection, they had managed to escalate the issue to the Uber Sri Lanka team.

On 8 August, the lady was finally contacted by a US number, but as they were travelling, the connection had been patchy. So, they were contacted once again on a subsequent day. Since this call and the response given were completely unsatisfactory, she requested that the matter be escalated and further looked into. After days of going back and forth with the matter, the team had held an investigation into the matter, assuring that no personal details of the customer would be divulged to the rider. Meanwhile, the Country Manager of Uber too had called to personally apologise for the inconvenience.

To the shock of the author of this post and his wife, on a particular Thursday morning, they discovered a couple standing at their gate. It turned out to be the rider and his wife, apologising and begging them to help get the rider’s job back. They had been shocked by how the matter had unfolded and brought this to the attention of the Uber Eats Sri Lanka Country Manager and in response, received a text saying that they were very sorry for the inconvenience caused. Thereafter, the lady had lodged a complaint on the app and received a call by another US number to apologise once again and assure her of her safety.

With several such complaints being lodged against the platform in the recent past and some disputes even being dragged to courts, and many posts being shared on social media, Uber Sri Lanka seems to have developed an unfavourable and questionable reputation over the years.

Purpose of riders taking pictures

The Uber Eats app has many delivery options including the new “Leave at Door” (LAD) option, a recent addition to minimise the spread of the Covid-19 virus as well as to promote safe social distancing norms within communities. According to Uber, the photo of the order being delivered is a requirement only for LAD orders when the consumers specifically request the courier partners (CPs) to leave the order at the door, which will ensure the order has indeed been delivered.

Uber for dummies

When asked about the local hotline based in Sri Lanka for consumers to lodge complaints and receive instant solutions, Uber officials said the in-app Uber Eats helpline is available to consumers during a live order. After the food is delivered, one can access messaging support through the in-app “Help” feature.

According to Uber, the procedure when handling complaints includes a designated team and a standardised process to handle all feedback raised relating to an order. A trained representative from the team examines all available information relating to an incident and any potential actions are based on the severity of the incident. Additionally, feedback of the CP is also taken into consideration.

Throughout its standardised investigation process, we learnt that Uber never shares personally identifiable information of any of their users with any other party.

Asked if there is a screening process when hiring drivers/riders, the company noted: “Uber Eats’ CPs are not employees but independent delivery service providers, and they are on-boarded after fulfilling the established internal process. Once on-board, CPs are provided awareness sessions to cover aspects such as how to use the app, understanding earnings, how to interact with users and restaurant partners, community guidelines, new features, how to contact Uber support, Colombo Municipal Council (CMC)-recommended guidelines, etc.

“Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the on-boarding process of CPs has been revised. Instead of group in-person sessions, Uber Eats has summarised this module into an educational video for viewing, prior to attending the assessment session at the Uber GL centre.”

However, given that all service-based institutions are governed by certain regulations of the country, The Sunday Morning spoke to Attorney-at-Law in the field of corporate and labour regulations Prasadi Wijesinghe. She shared that the law governing service-based companies in Sri Lanka mainly includes the Consumer Affairs Authority Act.

The general regulations in reference to quality of the service, sanitation, and health and safety protocols apply to every service provider in general. Apart from these, companies providing food delivery services are also legally bound by the Food Act No. 26 of 1980 in the context of distributing food.

“As Uber refer to themselves as a digital platform which simply connects two third parties via its platform, this allows them to avoid liability to ensure the quality, sanitation, health, and safety (standards) prescribed by law to the people who obtain services via the platform in most occasions. The consumers who use the Uber app have to mandatorily agree to the terms and conditions of using the Uber app. In such contracts, consumers barely have any bargaining power to negotiate on the terms and conditions. Agreeing to these terms and conditions puts the consumers in a position where in the event any loss/damage/threat is incurred by the consumer, they cannot claim any damages directly from Uber as Uber has not taken up any liability or has excluded its liabilities in the initial terms and conditions to which the consumer has agreed when signing up on the Uber app,” Wijesinghe explained.

She said that in her opinion, Uber, although being an intermediary, should not be given the opportunity to escape from its liability to remedy the negative impacts of poor services provided by the third-party service providers registered in their pool as service providers. “For example, private hospitals act as an intermediary to the patients who obtain the services of third-party consultants. In the event of faulty performance of the consultants, the hospital shall be made responsible for such poor performance along with the consultant. The levels of liability may differ.”

According to Wijesinghe, the law relating to digital unilateral agreements applicable for intermediary service providing companies can be improved in a way where the third-party service provider enters into an agreement with Uber with all the obligations relating to the quality of the service, sanitation, and health and safety protocols and Uber includes every such obligation in the unilateral agreement or the terms and conditions signed by the customer. “In this way, Uber can get the third-party service provider to indemnify Uber for faulty and poor service provision while at the same time holding them liable to pay damages to the aggrieved consumer.”

With the curiosity on how Uber deals with its taxation and whether it is registered under the Inland Revenue Department (IRD), The Sunday Morning contacted the IRD. However, they were unable to issue a statement to the public or the media. They did, however, inform that if a company is registered with the Department, they are required to submit their annual and quarterly reports, adding that failure to do so would lead to them investigating the matter. Moreover, if an individual felt that there were some discrepancies, they could make a complaint with the IRD, after which the latter would investigate the matter.

The functionality

We also spoke to eMarketingEye Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Rajitha Dahanayake to gain insights into how e-commerce platforms in general function.

“When speaking about e-commerce platforms, there are two types: One is an app which is downloaded and can be operated from anywhere and the other is the website type. With regard to websites, you can place the order and get them delivered, immaterial of the location. The key difference in the platform that service providers such as Uber work on is that it connects to multiple suppliers and works through an app, and they charge a commission for their services. In which case, from the amount they get as commission, they pay the riders and the balance is the profit. With regard to the profits, I am not sure whether it is collected locally, but what I feel is that it goes to an offshore account as it is a global operation.”

Dahanayaka pointed out that concerns have also been raised with regard to e-commerce operations making local offices liable to pay taxes while global platforms such as the aforementioned are exempt from such liability.

“In this scenario, the consumer may be taxed in the form of a stamp duty. Since these are global operations, it is difficult for any government to levy any taxes on them. Unless otherwise there should be a regulation to say that if you have an app, then you should have a local office. But then again, I do not know how practical it would be. When talking about responsibility, it would ideally be that these entities that have local representation are able to better handle customer complaints and issues. Of course, people would be more comfortable in dealing with such operators. However, in certain Southeast Asian countries, only the locally based apps are allowed.”

What do consumers think?

Demanding customers

– Anthony, business analyst

They’re pretty persistent that where they stand/park is the address on their map and we need to indicate it properly. They fail to read instructions even about the exact location. Once I left a note to bring change since I didn’t have any with me and the driver was adamant that I should have the change and they can’t see instructions before they pick up the order or else he would have never picked my order from the restaurant. Uber usually doesn’t want to pick up rides if they are too far or nearby after accepting the ride, or cancel when nearby late in the night. Also, they don’t keep change and end up overcharging always, saying they can’t look for change.

Cancels and charges

– Awanki Perera

There have been so many instances in which Uber drivers just cancel on us the minute they see the distance, and if the distance is short, after accepting the trip, most drivers do not move from their location. If we cancel the trip, we will be charged. Furthermore, Uber does not give an exact contact number of the driver. We have to contact their hotline, which is extremely inconvenient. More than anything, the biggest issue is that there is no person to complain about these issues in Uber Sri Lanka.

They stole the food

– Savini Perera, senior operational head

One of my friends wanted to deliver a food parcel through Uber Eats. The person ended the trip after collecting the food parcel and before delivering it to the required person. Basically, the Uber driver stole from her. And then she complained about this to Uber but got no response.

An illegal service?

– Pamodya

This was when I was travelling in Columbia. We ordered the taxi online and he picked us at the airport entrance. When we exited from the airport main entrance, the Columbia Police stopped us and the driver advised us to tell the Police that he was a friend of ours. We gave the answer he wanted. However, it got so complicated after the Police started to question us. So, we decided to tell the truth. Only then did we realise that Uber was an illegal service in that country. The Police arrested the driver and they also arranged another taxi for us to go to Bogotá. Uber didn’t have a number to lodge a complaint, so we emailed them. Within a day, they refunded our money. This is actually a very serious issue.