In our first blog of the new year, Professor Jo Brewis explores the ways in which the gig economy is providing an insidious new means for women to be exposed to sexual harassment. When strangers know phone numbers and addresses, how safe can women be?
Like women across the world, I have experienced an enormous sense of relief (and, yes, a hefty dose of feminist Schadenfreude) at the tidal wave of allegations of sexual and gender-based violence in the workplace and elsewhere – and the consequences for the violators – which seems to be gaining momentum with every day. I am profoundly grateful to and admiring of the amazing women who started the wave – Tarana Burke, Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan and so many more. We seem to be entering the Time’s Up era, and it feels both liberating and empowering. I am also fascinated by this from a professional perspective as someone who has spent many years researching the intersections between gender, bodies, sexuality and the workplace.
However, like all viruses, workplace sexual violence seems to be mutating and adapting. The example I offer here is the series of cases, dating back at least five years, of male delivery drivers harassing women customers by abusing their access to the woman’s mobile phone number after the transaction. The most recent is the complaint made by Michelle Midwinter to Just Eat after her delivery driver sent her WhatsApp messages describing himself as a ‘fan’, calling her ‘baby’ and including a lipsticked kiss emoji. Perhaps even more sinister is his sign off: ‘see you next time when I get your meal’. Just Eat have also been the target of widespread criticism for initially responding to Ms Midwinter’s complaint by offering her a ‘goodwill voucher’ with a £10 discount on her next order.
Ms Midwinter has commented on the number of women who have contacted her direct to tell their own stories, and the same sort of behaviour is documented elsewhere. In late 2015 for example, Tesco fired one of their drivers after he sent a customer in South London very sexually explicit texts about what he wanted to do to her and also called her late at night. Likewise, Domino’s sacked a driver who had harassed Imogene Groom with 22 texts after delivering her pizza, continuing until the next morning. Ms Groom commented
‘I found it a bit odd and funny at the time. But actually it’s really sinister and freaky. I realised it’s not just me who could be impacted b[y] this – other people could be. I didn’t want it to spread to other people and have other people disturbed by the texts’.
But other companies seem to take a much less stringent approach. Yodel were contacted by Alena Faulkner in November 2016 after their driver delivered a chest of drawers she bought on eBay. This man persisted in trying to initiate a text conversation with her afterwards. Yodel replied by saying that they had moved the man to a different route and deleted Ms Faulkner’s number from his phone. Unsurprisingly Ms Faulkner felt this was inadequate, commenting ‘It’s really made me worry – that man knows where I live’. In April 2013, a woman in Georgia also received unsolicited texts from a Domino’s delivery driver telling her she was ‘fine’ and that she was ‘looking good’. The store manager denied that the man worked for him at all and would not be drawn on whether there was a policy in place prohibiting drivers making unauthorized use of customer contact details.
Other instances include abuse by a Pizza Pizza driver against Nadisha Mendes in November 2015, calling her ‘pathetic’, suggesting she had obtained a ‘cheated pizza’ because the delivery was late and therefore free and body-shaming her with comments like ‘Wow ur fat AND u have no pride’. When Ms Mendes called their customer service line, she received an apology but was told the driver was both ‘new and a “good guy”’. Pizza Pizza only informed her he had been dismissed when she shared her story on social media. Like Ms Faulkner, Ms Mendes says this is small consolation since the driver still has her contact details and her address.
Sexual and gender-based violence like this also works in different ways, with female Uber taxi drivers saying male passengers have groped or assaulted them, a DoorDash worker being sent pornography by a customer and an Airbnb customer suing the company, alleging her male host had sexually assaulted her. A Papa John’s delivery driver in the US received sexualized texts from a customer, which quickly escalated into threats to report her when she rebuffed him – this after he had photographed her bottom when she bent over to get his pizza from her car.
This very 21st century phenomenon shows the vulnerabilities of both customer and worker in the gig economy, the constant connectivity afforded us by technology. In an era when service providers try to claim that their workers are actually self-employed, when apps and online order systems mean perfect strangers know where we live and how to get in touch with us, and when commercial transactions take place at and sometimes inside the front doors of our homes when we receive deliveries, it is becoming more and more evident that sexual violence is like a game of Whac-A-Mole. As we – rightly – celebrate the gains I outline in the opening paragraph here, we need to be equally attentive to its rapid evolution.