U.S. gig worker murders expose apps’ safety gaps, says labor group
By Avi Asher-Schapiro
LOS ANGELES (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Two years after fleeing political persecution in Bangladesh, Salauddin Bablu was stabbed to death in Manhattan by a man who stole the electric bike he used to deliver food during long shifts for the Grubhub app.
“When Salauddin died, his family lost everything,” Bablu’s brother-in-law, Muhammad Ahsan, said by phone from New York City, adding that Bablu used to send half his earnings to his wife and children back in Bangladesh.
Bablu’s 2021 murder is one of more than 50 documented in a report issued on Wednesday by California-based labor group Gig Workers Rising, which says app firms must do more to protect drivers from crime while they are out on the streets working.
The group tracked the murders of gig workers from 2017 using information such as news reports and families’ GoFundMe pages and found that more than 60% of the victims were, like Bablu, people of color, many of them immigrants or new arrivals to the United States.
Workers in the gig economy are disproportionately from racial and ethnic minorities, the Pew Research Center has found https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/12/15/racial-and-ethnic-differences-stand-out-in-the-u-s-gig-workforce, with non-white workers more likely to report “troubling encounters” such as feeling unsafe.
A Grubhub spokesperson said Bablu was not logged on to the app or delivering food at the time of attack, though he had been working that day.
The spokesperson said the safety of drivers and couriers “is our top priority,” and that it will “work with state and local governments across the country to implement safety measures.”
Ahsan said the company offered Bablu’s family a sum of $15,000 following his murder.
“It’s really nothing – it can only support the family for a few months,” Ahsan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “These are very dangerous jobs – and the companies need to be more accountable.”
The report said major app-based companies including Uber, Grubhub, Lyft, Postmates and Instacart do not do enough to keep gig workers safe, and offer inadequate compensation when they are targeted by criminals while doing their jobs.
“These are not isolated incidents … This is a pattern,” said Cherri Murphy, a former Lyft driver who worked on the report.
In emailed statements, all the gig companies mentioned in the report said they prioritized workers’ safety. Some have introduced new safety precautions and injury or death benefits.
WORKERS ASSAULTED, KILLED
But in light of the dangers often faced by gig drivers and delivery workers, which can include carjackings and robbery, critics of the app companies say they should give the workers the benefits of full-time employment.
Gig firms have campaigned to classify workers as independent contractors, rather than employees, a move that saves Uber and Lyft $392 million in annual costs associated with insurance and taxes in California alone, according to estimates https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-uber-california-focus/uber-lyft-spend-big-in-california-to-oppose-even-costlier-gig-worker-law-idUKKBN26Q1TI by Reuters.
“We know workers who drive for a living are 20 times more likely to be murdered than people doing other jobs,” said Veena Dubal, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, who has pushed to extend full employee rights to gig workers.
In 2021, Uber introduced new safety features, including allowing drivers and passengers to record audio of calls, and offers supplemental injury protections.
Some gig firms offer death benefits, but the protections often fall short of those given to traditional employees, Dubal said.
Grubhub, the company Bablu worked for, did not respond to a request for comment about what insurance or death benefits is offered to workers.
“The companies are responsible for putting workers’ lives at risk,” said Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Workers Justice Project, which helps organize the delivery drivers collective, Los Deliveristas Unidos https://losdeliveristasunidos.org, which means Delivery Workers United in Spanish.
Her group has recorded at least 16 delivery drivers killed on the job in New York City between 2020 and 2021 in both accidents and assaults.
“We’re holding vigils all the time,” she said.
Uber’s most recent safety report, from 2019, showed that seven workers were assaulted and killed in 2017 and 2018. Lyft documented 10 killings between 2017-19.
None of the other major platforms have made such data public, according to Gig Workers Rising https://gigworkersrising.org.
Murphy said that made it difficult to know the true scope of safety issues, calling for a ban on non-disclosure agreements and for companies to make more data public.
Last year, New York City introduced https://news.trust.org/item/20210924163354-8aomh regulations championed by Guallpa and delivery drivers, including safety rules that let workers review a proposed route before accepting a new delivery.
Before that, workers were unable to decline deliveries on routes they thought were unsafe without being penalized.
But when gig workers are assaulted or murdered, getting insurance payouts can be challenging, said Bryant Greenling, a lawyer in Chicago who represents ride-share drivers.
“Companies often fight tooth and nail (to avoid payouts),” he said.
Workers’ families profiled in the Gig Workers Rising report said companies sometimes did not contact them after a worker was killed – and were difficult to get in touch with after incidents.
Alyssa Lewis, whose sister Isabella was murdered while driving for Lyft in 2021, said the only statement Lyft made about the incident was carried in the local paper, and that the family had to raise money for funeral expenses on GoFundMe.
“This is a big tech company – the least they could have done was get in touch and helped with the funeral,” she said.
A Lyft spokesperson said the company had tried to contact Lewis’ family, but was unsuccessful, adding that it was “committed to doing everything we can to help protect drivers from crime.”
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