When a male customer grabbed Melissa’s breast, she didn’t bother reporting it to DoorDash, the on-demand food delivery service that hired her as a driver.
She didn’t think the company would care. When a different customer had sexually harassed her a month earlier – texting her a pornographic video through the app – DoorDash did little to help, she said. The company canceled the order, but allowed the man to continue sending her multiple messages.
“I felt very fearful. I felt very alone,” said Melissa, 32, who asked to use only her first name. “I questioned whether I wanted to continue to do this, but I’m financially dependent on it. This is my income.”
But almost entirely overlooked amid the public outrage is the massive pool of low-wage workers – especially in the sharing economy – who are vulnerable to a wide range of abuses on the job because they lack basic labor rights.
And while corporate scandals continue to make headlines – most recently involving a Google engineer’s memo criticizing diversity initiatives – there has been minimal scrutiny of the harassment, abuse and discrimination the tech products have enabled by connecting strangers through the internet. That includes sexual assaults of Uber drivers and food deliverers, physical attacks and racist abuse by Airbnb hosts, and violent threats on Twitter, Facebook and dating apps.
“We have to talk about this as a problem these platforms have created,” said Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami law professor who studies online abuse. “[If you’re] going to set up a platform to make it possible for people to instantaneously communicate with people they don’t know … you know full well it’s going to be abused and weaponized.”
‘You’re on your own’
In the same way that female engineers and startup founders struggle to report harassment for fear of retaliation or lost funding, gig economy workers are in precarious positions when they are victimized, since they aren’t classified as employees.
“DoorDash is like, ‘You’re an independent contractor. You’re in business for yourself. You know the risks. You’re on your own,’” said Melissa, who has been driving full-time for the company since last fall.
A spokesperson said that in the case of the man who sent her pornography, the customer was deactivated, though there was a five-minute window when he could still text her.
The success of many on-demand companies like DoorDash depends on hiring a large, cheap workforce of contract employees who have no benefits or job security. That’s the model for a wide range of companies, including the taxi apps Uber and Lyft, and other delivery services, such as GrubHub, UberEats, Caviar, Instacart and Postmates.
The companies argue that drivers can be their own bosses and enjoy flexible hours. But some workers say they can’t make ends meet and are ignored when they complain about working conditions.
Saba Waheed, research director at the University of California, Los Angeles, labor center, argued that if the firms allowed workers to unionize or treated them like employees, then drivers would have legal means to speak up and the companies would be more liable for their safety.
“There has to be a more direct responsibility. You’re earning so much profit off of this workforce.”
The corporations’ inaction can be especially painful when workers are harassedand threatened on the job, facing the kinds of misconduct that human resources departments would be obligated to investigate if the offenses were happening to office employees.
Grace, an Uber driver in her 50s who works in San Francisco, where the company is headquartered, said she had been groped by passengers four times in three years.
“I honestly don’t believe that most women could handle these situations that I’ve been in,” said Grace, who requested not to use her full name out of fear that Uber would retaliate. When passengers mistreat her, she said, she typically gave them low ratings, but did not raise concerns to Uber because she worried reporting could get her in trouble.
“I’m so afraid of being deactivated, because I need the money,” said Grace, who said it was common for her to feel unsafe with drunk and belligerent passengers. She recounted one incident when she said she turned down a group of riders because there were too many for her car, leading one to grow angry and kick the vehicle.
The Guardian has previously reported on two women who drove for Uber and said they were violently assaulted by passengers. They said Uber did little to support them and the company failed to work with police to help bring charges.
Dolores Benitez, who used to be a New York City taxi driver but now works for Uber and other ride-sharing companies, said she had dealt with passengers physically fighting in her car and riders having sex. One intoxicated rider began aggressively kicking her seat when he thought she was going the wrong way, she said.
“We don’t have a partition in the car. If the person wants to do something to you, they will do it,” said Benitez, 64, adding that she felt the companies would generally side with the passengers if there were disputes about misconduct. “It’s your word against their word. They, as passengers, have the rights.”
Uber has noted that it investigates reports of harassment and assault by passengers and bans them from the platform as a result. A spokesperson said the company had a 24/7 incident response team and that drivers could easily connect to live representatives to report problems.
DoorDash said in a statement: “We investigate reports of inappropriate behavior and take action to deactivate those individuals from the platform that violate our policies,” the company said in a statement. “While sometimes we may fall short of our customer experience goals, we’re constantly working to learn from these experiences and respond to them even faster.”
While highly paid tech workers have complained about dysfunctional HR operations, gig economy drivers lament the fact they can struggle to even get a human on the phone when they are facing dangerous situations on the job. Often, drivers receive automated replies to their complaints.
Arlena Bain, a driver for Instacart, which offers on-demand grocery deliveries, said she has felt vulnerable working in remote areas with no cell service.
“They make us drive to these really unsafe zones – places that nobody wanted to deliver to,” she said, adding that she did not turn down trips for fear that it would hurt her standing with the company. “We’re so replaceable to them.”
Melissa, the DoorDash driver, said she wished the tech companies would be more respectful to the people who allowed the businesses to flourish. A DoorDash representative, she said, was not sympathetic when she called to report a man who was not a customer but had aggressively threatened her, claiming she was trespassing.
“Their response was, ‘You want to end [the shift] early?’” Melissa said. “They leave us out in the cold.”
Abandoned to abusers
Though sexual harassment is not a new problem, online platforms have enabled methods of abuse that were not possible before, in some cases helping turn people into abusers.
Franks, the law professor, said sites like Facebook and Twitter attracted “opportunistic harassers”, by rewarding impulsive behavior and making it easy for them to inflict serious damage on victims with just a few clicks.
On a fundamental level, the companies resisted substantive changes to their services that would limit abusive content, because they were driven by the overarching goal of maximizing engagement and use, said Franks, who is also the legislative and tech policy director with the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative.
“They’re afraid they’ll get a drop off in participation. In other words, they’re afraid it’ll work.”
In the case of revenge porn or “nonconsensual pornography” – when abusers spread sexually explicit images of victims without their consent – it can feel impossible for those who are targeted to protect themselves or get help from tech platforms. Even if one site is responsive and removes photos, the images can continue to spread, said Christina Gagnier, a California attorney who represents victims of online abuse and teaches at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law.
“It goes from Facebook to across the internet. It jumps from platform to platform,” she said. “It’s like playing whack-a-mole trying to remove all the photos.”
Victims trying to stop the abuse sometimes have no choice but to involve law enforcement, which can add to the trauma, said Gagnier: “You have to go into a court of law and discuss this in the public record.”
Alexandra Tweten, who created a popular site that posts harassing messages from men on online dating services, said she has dealt with people who have found her personal social media pages and been able to keep sending her abusive messages and explicit images by creating fresh accounts after she blocks them.
Tweten provided examples of recent submissions to her website of angry men who were rejected on Tinder. One responded: “You are 200 lbs overweight, you should at least be polite.” Another man appeared to try to blackmail a woman into sleeping with him, saying that if she did not, he would send screenshots of their conversations to “people you know”, adding, “good luck”.
She noted that it could be hard to get the websites to hold men accountable, because harassers create new profiles and find new targets: “A lot of times it’s the same guys who are doing it to everyone.”
The notion that platforms are not responsible or liable for the actions of their users, including criminal behavior, extends across Silicon Valley.
Leslie Lapayowker recently sued Airbnb, alleging that a host who sexually assaulted her had not been properly screened by the company. She added that it had been especially painful to discover that the man had previously been accused of domestic violence, but was still allowed to host.
Airbnb said the man had not been convicted of a previous crime and was banned from the platform after the woman reported him. The host vehemently denied the assault allegations.
Lapayowker said: “I was just shocked that this could even happen. I just feel like they are hiding behind legalities.”
“It’s ruined my life. I’m not the same person. I’m not the outgoing, funny, engaging person that I was.”
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Illustrations by Katherine Lam