[Written by Toju Adelaja]
[Image Credit: freestocks.org//flickr.com]
[Trigger Warning: This article includes discussion of sexual assault.]
When Uber driver Rebecca Graham was sexually assaulted by two passengers and reported this to Uber; she was offered no counselling, reimbursement for lost wages, or anything remotely helpful. They also refused to disclose the identity of the passenger without a subpoena and that she couldn’t get a warrant since there was no evidence beyond her testimony.
Cosmopolitan also interviewed many other female drivers for companies like Lyft and Uber who came forward with their stories of sexual harassment. They recounted horrifying experiences like being propositioned by passengers, grabbed and touched inappropriately, and often receiving verbal abuse when they reject these unwanted advances. After reporting these customers and giving them a 1-star rating (usually all these women can do), they receive a generic apology email. There are no repercussions for the perpetrators, like being taken off the platform and the cases are rarely followed up. What’s worse is that many of these women have taken to driving just in the daytime when they feel safer, depriving them of the more lucrative night-time gigs. Considering these tend to be the drivers’ main source of income, the effect of sexual harassment for gig-workers is not just emotional.
Zero-hour contract workers also need to keep working (in the cases of some waitresses, actually serving the person who may have just groped them) or else they won’t get paid. They then have to keep suffering in silence, as they fear that kicking up a fuss will put their already unstable job in even more danger.
These revelations come on the heels of the rise of the ‘MeToo’ movement, which exploded from what was merely a trending topic on Twitter to a global discussion regarding the alarming rate at which women experienced sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace. Away from its Hollywood roots, everyday working women revealed how much this affected them too. A 2016 survey by the TUC and Everyday Sexism Project showed that 52% of women surveyed had experienced sexual harassment at work, 63% of whom were aged 18 to 24. Considering the lingering culture where women who admit to experiences of sexual assault are risking their jobs, it’s safe to say that the number could be much higher. Women have always been taught not to ‘rock the boat’— by reporting assault, most women risk being seen as ‘trouble makers’. ‘Trouble makers’ are seen as expendable and are usually replaced—an unfortunate reality for most women.
Valid criticism has been levelled at what the movement has done offline in the real world, for regular working women. It’s fair enough that it’s brought discussion and awareness of sexual assault to the forefront. Sure, employment law has always strictly prohibited sexual and non-sexual assault in any form, but this hasn’t stopped companies doing what they can in order to silence and deter victims– from non-disclosure agreements to dismissals under circumstances that ‘obviously’ have nothing to do with their reporting of the sexual assault, to plain old workplace bullying. We need legislation based on this new reality we have been faced with – clearly, the current mechanisms to deal with sexual assault in the workplace have failed. Companies have mostly been taking matters into their own hands to avoid properly dealing with these issues. They care, if nothing else, about their reputations, and know they need workers just as much as workers need them. The same cannot be said for those women in gig-work, whose work is in its nature, unstable.
It’s clear that companies that employ gig workers have no regard for wellbeing of their employees, but rather prioritise their own business. Most gig workers never physically meet a ‘boss’ or HR manager in the way regular workers can, nor do they have unions in their corner. While the law has stepped in to force these companies to view gig workers as employees and not ‘independent contractors’, more needs to be done. Leaving protocol where there has been sexual assault in the workplace up to the employer has had fairly disastrous consequences even in conventional jobs where employees actually have someone to report to. The law needs to evolve now to suit these new types of working relationships that don’t fit into the model of traditional employment. It’s not enough that there is a need for employers not to condone sexual harassment and assault. This should go without saying. What we need now is for there to be a prescribed way of dealing with it, and one that is sure to protect women in less secure employment as well.