[By Alexandrea J. Ravenelle]
Uber has released its long-awaited safety report, detailing sexual assaults, fatal physical assaults and motor vehicle fatalities in the United States. The results on sexual assault are disturbing: nearly 6,000 incidents in 2017 and 2018 combined, ranging from “nonconsensual touching” to rape.
Though most of the reported rape victims were riders, Uber drivers were victims of other types of sexual assaults at roughly equal rates as riders. And Uber has finally acknowledged the risks its drivers face, saying in its report that they “have a right to have their experiences told, and we have a responsibility to stand with them so that we can create the safest possible environment for drivers and their passengers.”
The assaults on drivers highlight what can happen when a workplace is highly fluid and work occurs in a private vehicle, where worker and client don’t know each other’s full names. In my research I’ve heard countless tales of sexual assault, harassment and uncomfortable experiences in the gig economy. After interviewing nearly 80 on-demand workers for a book, I can vouch that the statistics in the Uber report don’t tell the whole story of what drivers face in their jobs. Sexual misconduct is likely underreported at Uber — and in the rest of the sharing economy.
A messenger for Postmates and Uber Eats told me about an errand to pick up sex toys that ended in an invitation to try out the new acquisitions. Chefs on Kitchensurfing, a chef-booking platform that is now defunct, discussed working swingers parties, being asked to take part in threesomes and cooking for clients who had loud sex in the next room. TaskRabbits related stories about being hit on (both during and after a task); invited to participate in revenge sex; and yes, being assaulted by clients.
In my interviews with gig workers I was stunned not only by the sheer prevalence of the stories but also by the way workers described such experiences. Workers consistently described their experiences as “weird,” “uncomfortable” or “Bizarro land” — but rarely as sexual harassment or assault. They recognized that something was wrong in their work situation. But after repeatedly being told that they weren’t employees, and that they were engaged in egalitarian peer-to-peer activities, they stopped seeing the personal as political. Describing their experiences as “weirdness” is a manifestation of defeat. It suggests that workers are resigned to this treatment, or feel powerless to stop it.
If workers believe this behavior is not abusive or criminal, but simply bizarre, then the mistreatment of participants in the gig economy is an even bigger problem than statistics can reveal.
After all, if you can’t name the problem, how can you tame it?
Uber has some strategies to increase safety, but it is still focused on passengers: sharing information with other platforms about drivers banned for misconduct, expanding its sexual misconduct training program, and introducing a verification tool so riders know they’re getting into an authorized Uber car. The drivers are left without many protections — they are given “tips” for staying safe while driving and reminded they can end a ride at any time.
Gig economy companies should be held responsible for the abuse that workers experience. Platforms such as Uber should teach their workers about the risks of sexual assault or harassment in their jobs. And workers should be able to report problems and obtain instant support when they find themselves in uncomfortable situations.
Uber is starting to move in that direction by adding the ability to contact 911 through the app in select cities, an important feature for both riders and drivers, and increased access to phone support, but it could go further. Instant-access hotlines and the ability to anonymously report questionable and uncomfortable situations to the platforms — with a promise that such actions will not affect worker ratings or algorithmic rankings — should be accompanied by a guaranteed wage in the event that workers find themselves in a dangerous situation. And just as drivers are banned for serious safety incidents, passengers should also be held accountable and removed from the platform.
Other gig services need to join Uber in releasing statistics regarding sexual harassment and assaults, and all platforms have to take responsibility for preventing these experiences altogether.