SINGAPORE: The recent case of the Grab driver who drove young women, including one 17-year-old, to secluded areas and harassed them is not an isolated case of harassment via ride-hailing service.
Multiple local reports have surfaced since 2016 of drivers committing acts of sexual violence - molesting passengers, masturbating in front of passengers or, in one case, assaulting a passenger who fell asleep in the backseat during the ride.
Nor is this issue exclusive to Singapore.
In December 2019, Uber released its first-ever safety report, revealing that 3,045 sexual assaults had been reported in rides in the United States in 2018.
Closer to home, in Asia, an attack on a female rider by a Grab driver in Indonesia triggered a national conversation on sexual harassment in 2019.
A 2014 rape case caused widespread outrage against Uber in India, leading to the service being temporarily banned.
China’s largest ride-hailing giant, Didi Chuxing, came under fire after two explosive murder-and-rape cases made headlines in 2018.
We have to ask: Does the ride-hailing industry have a sexual harassment problem?
GIG ECONOMY AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT
Sexual harassment cases have been reported in the context of other services that are mainstays of the gig economy, such as Airbnb and food-delivery apps.
For example, a foodpanda deliveryman in Singapore was blacklisted recently in August after he reportedly entered a customer’s flat without permission and sexually harassed her.
All these incidents should be viewed within the larger issue of violence against women, which must be met with zero tolerance. Yet there seem to be conditions inherent to gig economy companies, and ride-hailing services in particular, that create the potential for abuse – whether of customers or workers.
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The typical customer tends to have some faith in the recruitment processes of these companies, believing that ride-hailing drivers are thoroughly vetted for prior history of harassment and assault.
However, that is far from standard in the gig economy. In 2017, Airbnb was sued for negligence by a woman who claimed that the company had allowed her to rent a room from a man previously accused of domestic violence.
In Singapore, a GrabHitch driver previously convicted of outrage of modesty was found guilty in 2019 of molesting two passengers within an hour of each other.
When complaints of sexual harassment at the hands of a worker are indeed filed, the companies’ responses frequently disappoint.
In Indonesia last year, Grab came under fire for allegedly trying to convince a victim to meet privately with a driver, after she reported him for kissing her forcefully on the lips, so he could “give an explanation directly”.
When the traumatised woman declined, the company publicly faulted her on Twitter for refusing the meeting “despite already receiving an explanation from [Grab’s] side”.
When such cases of sexual harassment occur and crimes have been alleged, should ride-hailing giants bring in law enforcement or dismiss these cases as misunderstandings that can be privately resolved?
One further concern: People may go away with the impression that women’s safety is less important until it gets public attention. Uber was compelled to drop its forced arbitration requirements for sexual harassment reporting after a CNN investigation in 2018.
Workers too in the gig economy could do with stronger protections. After all, the 2019 Uber safety report actually found that female drivers experienced sexual harassment and abuse at similar rates as passengers.
Companies have notoriously avoided responsibility for sexual harassment against their drivers by claiming that they are just platforms enabling peer-to-peer service.
In 2019, a Guardian investigation found that female drivers of Uber and Lyft in the United States who experienced a range of harassment received little or no support from the companies.
In Singapore, a passenger was sent to jail in 2018 for repeatedly molesting his Uber driver while she was driving. She waited until the trip was over to report the case.
SOME ATTEMPTS TO SHIFT GEARS
Over the last couple of years, ride-hailing companies have put out a mixed bag of preventative policies to address sexual harassment.
In Singapore, Grab bans drivers who commit sexual assault, and provides digital training on what constitutes harassment to all its employees. It also outlines in its code of conduct for drivers what inappropriate actions to abstain from to avoid being inadvertently accused of sexual harassment.
While those measures appear to have been well thought through, others – such as Chinese company Didi’s trial move in 2018 to limit drivers who can accept late-night passengers (to those who have driven for at least six months, with more than 1,000 safe trips logged) – seem to be based on erroneous beliefs that sexual violence only happens at night. We weren’t able to find any publicly available data on the programme’s impact on increasing the safety of female passengers.
Companies have also turned to technology for solutions. For example, since 2017, Grab has introduced a new feature in Southeast Asia that allows passengers to notify security and share their ride trajectory with emergency contacts.
This action triggers a call from an external security company that assesses the passenger’s situation and escalates matters to the police if required.
Meanwhile, in the hopes of deterring harassment and improving dispute resolution, Gojek has since 2019 allowed drivers in Singapore to opt for the installation of inward-facing recording devices in their vehicles. Recordings are stored for seven days and can be accessed by authorised data controllers in cases of dispute.
In Indonesia, a team of women have launched a ride-hailing service, Ojesy, populated with only female drivers. PickMe, a ride-hailing service in Sri Lanka, allows rider opt-in, allowing female drivers to only drive female passengers.
These moves are reminiscent of the practice in India, Japan and elsewhere to introduce dedicated women-only cars on trains.
A university student in Singapore started a similar women-only carpooling group on Telegram last year, after experiencing harassment by a male driver.
While such ground-up actions are to be lauded for finding new ways to create safe spaces for women, such ideas can be inadvertently problematic: They place the burden of preventing sexual harassment on women, sending the message that women should curtail their freedoms to avoid violence.
HOLDING COMPANIES ACCOUNTABLE
Companies in Singapore should use the national attention generated by the recent Grab case to put serious measures in place against sexual harassment of both workers and customers.
While ride-hailing giants have for years condemned such crimes and vowed to put up stronger precautions, these cases seem to recur at alarming rates.
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The fluid, private nature of the gig economy, where service exchanges between worker and customer take place inside cars and other private settings, makes data on sexual harassment even harder to obtain than regular workplaces.
Where the same concerns plague the ride-hailing sector as a whole, it would be a missed opportunity to strengthen public safety if only implicated companies take corrective steps to close loopholes.
Following Uber’s lead, all ride-hailing companies should release statistics regarding sexual harassment and assault, and information about remedial action taken to investigate each case and prevent recurrence.
If they don’t already have formal systems in place for sharing records, they should share pertinent information with each other about drivers banned for misconduct, so perpetrators don’t get passed from one company to another.
They should also improve support for female drivers. During orientation, drivers could be educated about the risks of sexual assault or harassment by passengers, actions that companies will take and guarantees that remuneration will not be affected. Companies can provide real-time recourse to help if such incidents arise.
One of the reasons why Grab was established was precisely to address taxi safety concerns, according to interviews with cofounder Tan Hooi Ling.
One hopes that companies would be motivated by the moral impulse to do what’s right, but there is also a strong business case to put in place stronger safeguards.
Firms looking for a more utilitarian reason to take sexual harassment seriously need only to look at a 2018 report released by the International Finance Corporation and Accenture, which analysed attitudes towards ride-hailing in countries such as Indonesia and the United Kingdom.
It found that many women cite sexual harassment as a chief reason to avoid ride-hailing services entirely.
Shailey Hingorani is Head of Research and Advocacy at AWARE.