Rape, traffic mayhem, financial desperation, suicide… Welcome to the brave new world of Uber Technologies
by Mike Beggs
Under intense scrutiny, Uber Technologies has waived the forced arbitration clause, which keeps victims of sexual assault or rape against the company from taking their allegations to a public courtroom. The rival Lyft quickly followed Uber’s lead.
Arbitration clauses are standard in the contracts of many major corporations, and amount to a legal loophole used to stifle women’s accounts of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. But they’ve been under attack as the #meToo movement gathers steam, and in January Microsoft Corp. became the first to repeal this clause.
Uber’s mid-May announcement came just a few weeks after 14 of its female passengers sent an open letter to the Uber Board asking to be released from the arbitration provision contained in the consumer agreement to the Uber app, “so that we are able to pursue our claims of sexual assault, rape and sexual harassment, and gender-motivated violence through our court system rather than in a confidential arbitration.”
The women recounted being assaulted, groped and/or raped by their drivers in the letter. One said her driver, “pulled out his penis and masturbated during the ride, while another recalled waking up on the back seat, as the driver was “engaging in oral sex on me without consent.”
“Silencing our stories deprives the customers, and potential victims from the knowledge that our horrid experiences are part of a widespread problem at Uber,” the letter alleges. “Secret arbitration takes away a woman’s right to a trial by a jury of her peers, and provides a dark alley for Uber to hide from the justice system, the media, and public scrutiny.”
Uber has been under the gun for the past several years for the high incidence of sexual violence against its female passengers. This issue blew up when a CNN investigation discovered that 103 Uber drivers in the U.S. have been accused of sexual assault or abuse of their passengers in the past four years. (Similarly, these crimes are at occurring at such an alarming rate in London that taking an Uber has been dubbed, “Rape Roulette”).
“You are pretty much hitchhiking with strangers,” one victim told CNN. “How many people is it going to take to get assaulted before something is done?”
On May 1, Uber issued the statement, “Our hearts go out to these victims.” But, the company failed to remove the forced arbitration clause until after the plight of the 14 women seeking a class action suit was featured nationwide on NBC’s popular Today show; and plaintiffs can still only pursue court action on an individual basis.
“It’s clear that sexual violence remains a huge problem, globally. Uber is not immune to this deeply rooted problem, and we believe that it is up to us to be a big part of the solution,” stated Tony West, the company’s chief legal officer.
“We have learned it’s important to give sexual assault and harassment survivors control of how they pursue their claims. Whatever they decide, they will be free to tell their story whenever and however they see fit. The company also plans to release data on sexual violence and other incidents that occur on its platform.”
In an online posting, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said these changes are part of a new corporate culture, under which, “We always do the right thing, period.” He stressed that every day Uber connects 15 million trips around the world.
“We recently strengthened our safety approach with new features including an emergency button, driver screening improvements, and the addition of the former head of Homelands Security to head up the Uber Safety Advisory. This is just a start, Uber aims to do more,” he said in an online posting.
However, more than one pundit questioned whether Uber’s new persona could be taken at face value, given the company’s checkered history over the past few years, and the hyper-competitive nature of the massive ridesharing market.
Leading the push for the class action suit, and central to some of the biggest cases of the #meToo Movement (The Weinstein Co, Fox News, etc.) Wigdor LLP’s Jeanne Christensen would only concede that Uber’s concession represents, “a critical first step”.
“(But) preventing victims from proceeding together on a class action basis shows that Uber is not fully committed to meaningful change,” she alleged. “Victims are more likely to come forward knowing they can proceed as a group. This is the beginning of a longer process needed to improve safety.”
And a headline on the Mary Sue online site suggested, “Uber Figures Out How To Maybe, Kinda Sorta Act Like Human Beings Toward Sexual Assault Victims.”
“In order to do better or at least give that impression, Uber is now changing polices that it should never have had in the first place,” Teresa Jusino wrote.
“For a company with Uber’s history, I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Of these measures, Toronto owner/operator Gerry Manley agrees, “It’s nowhere near enough. Why don’t they mandate to their drivers to have cameras, which have been a proven crime deterrent?” he asks.
He scoffs at the argument that the Uber business model can’t support drivers buying mandatory cameras as part of the equation. He suggests that valued at around $40-billion, Uber itself should cover these costs in the name of safety.
“Come on. They can’t afford $1,200 for their drivers’ and passengers’ safety, which is tax deductible, 100 percent,” he adds.
It was on April 2, that the Today Show aired the segment on, “Women Who Claim Misconduct By Uber Drivers”.
Among the 14 women, Addison Hoover told how she was raped by her Uber driver, and then tried to take her own life two hours afterwards.
Stephanie recounted how her Uber driver came to the back seat and said, “Oh, I just need two minutes with you, baby.”
“I reached for the door handle and swung my bag at his face and ran. He made a U-Turn and chased me. I’m terrified. I’m shaking. I can’t even find my key,” she related. “I see six months later he’s still driving with Uber, and he knows where I live.”
Of riding in an Uber, Today moderator Megyn Kelly observed, “It’s a lot like being in an elevator. It’s a locked box with a stranger. The difference is he’s in control of it and you’re not.”
Legislation has recently been proposed in several states to ban corporate non--disclosure agreements for sexual harassment charges by employees. And Congress is, reportedly, weighing a proposal to outlaw arbitration clauses for sexual assault cases, nationally.
Manley suggests it’s only a matter of time before the grave situation surrounding PTC’s and sexual violence repeats itself in Toronto.
“When you have 54,000 drivers working predominantly for the Uber X app and only 10 to 12 inspectors to chase these drivers -- and most of their vehicles are unmarked -- it is a Molotov cocktail looking to explode,” he asserts.
He alleges the City of Toronto is more concerned about collecting its 30 cents per run from these 54,000 vehicles than about customer safety. “If they did care, the number of vehicles would be reduced (markedly) to a level that provides safety and reasonable customer service,” he adds.
Mississauga plate owner Peter Pellier agrees that, “By abandoning a limitation on the number of operating vehicles affiliated with assorted PTC’s, the City has rendered it impossible to enforce the bylaw.”
“We have regressed to the days of the Wild West, when law and order was tenuous at best,” he offers.
Meanwhile, in New York, many City Council members are now voicing serious second thoughts about opposing Mayor Bill De Blasio’s proposed cap on Uber three years back. And they are considering several measures to rein in Uber -- given the fact Manhattan is now flooded with a staggering 103,000 vehicles.
The new Speaker of the New York Council Corey Johnson told The Village Voice he “made a mistake” by not attempting to curtail the growth of Uber at that time.
“Given what we’ve seen and the explosive growth of this industry and how it has affected the streets of New York City, I think we should have done more,” he stated.
With this news, Mark Sexsmith, marketing manager with All-Star Taxi in Mississauga suggests that, “In addition to London, the province of Quebec, and various European cities, the magic of ridesharing is wearing thin in many jurisdictions.”
“The only surprise is why it took so long for the movers and shakers at New York City Hall to recognize the monster they created by allowing Uber et al to operate at will,” Pellier chips in. “Is the situation any different in Toronto? Hardly. That said, will there be any enthusiasm on John Tory’s part to put the genie back in the bottle? Somehow I doubt it, certainly not with the revenue stream flowing into the City’s coffers from the PTC’s.”
Then came the heartbreaking news that a fourth professional driver (Nicanor Ochisor, 64) had taken his life in New York, on the heels of limo driver Douglas Schifter’s highly publicized suicide outside the gates of city hall on February 5.
To Pellier’s point of view, it’s one thing for municipal councils throughout the GTHA to turn their backs on local cabbies by welcoming Uber with open arms, but quite another thing in New York where, since 1966, the City has auctioned off newly-minted medallions for a high of $1 million each.
“Every single elected representative who enabled Uber, Lyft and the other PTC’s to operate at will at the considerable expense of hardworking cabbies – many of whom with years of experience servicing the public – has blood on their hands,” he alleges.
“Arguably, New York’s medallion owners possess the most compelling case of all (for legal action). It begs the question, how many more lives will be lost in the face of mounting desperation?”