a graphic with a ride share app driver sitting in the middle, a passenger on making discriminatory remarks on the left, a phone giving deactivated notification on the right
A recent study found being a driver for a rideshare app was often a troubling workplace fraught with an unequal power dynamic between driver and passenger. Graphic designed by Chuqin Jiang.

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Last updated: February 28, 2023

As a Black Uber and Lyft driver in his 60s, Derwin has encountered his fair share of racist passengers. Twice he canceled rides in the middle of the trip after passengers made racist remarks. A day following both incidents, Uber blocked him from using the app — purportedly because the racist customer complained. 

“I was deactivated,” said Derwin. “Uber didn’t explain anything.”

He called Uber, he said, but no one advised him on what to do. “There wasn’t any way for me to explain or to respond to the complaints against me,” Derwin said.

Derwin’s experience is common among many app-based drivers, according to a first-of-its-kind study released today by the Asian Law Caucus and Los Angeles-based gig worker group Rideshare Drivers United. The study found that being a driver for a rideshare app was often a troubling work experience, fraught with an unequal power dynamic between driver and passenger. Riders hold the power, and drivers are at their mercy. 

“The survey results show how uniquely exposed and vulnerable rideshare drivers are to customer discrimination, bias, harassment and retaliation,” said Winnie Kao, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus and a researcher on the survey, who described the widespread and systemic problems revealed by the survey as “striking.”

Even when drivers endured racial epithets and sexual harassment on the job, rideshare companies often sided with the alleged harasser by ignoring drivers’ complaints and even deactivating them from the app, the survey showed. Moreover, the data collected in the survey of 810 current and former Uber and Lyft drivers showed racial disparities in drivers being deactivated. 

Two-thirds of those surveyed had experienced either temporary or permanent deactivation.

Nearly half of the drivers who had been deactivated said complaints came from passengers who in fact had discriminated against them, against their race or ethnicity, but also their accents or language proficiency. 

Data from the report Fired by an app. Graphic by Chuqin Jiang.

Deactivation disproportionately affected drivers of color; 69 percent of the drivers of color in the survey reported being deactivated, compared to 57 percent of white drivers.

Joe Arjunan, a dark-skinned Indian man in Azusa, said he has been kicked on the job, had his hair pulled, and had racist, abusive language directed at him by riders. Uber permanently deactivated Arjunan in 2018, but he never found out why, according to the report. 

“We know that drivers rely on Uber to earn, so the decision to deactivate a driver’s account is one that we do not take lightly,” an Uber spokesperson said, adding that Uber has a rigorous, human-led evaluation process when deciding to temporarily or permanently deactivate an account. Unless there is a serious emergency or safety threat, Uber issues multiple warnings to drivers before permanently deactivating them, and drivers have the option to appeal eligible deactivations.

In a Feb. 28 statement to Mission Local, Lyft said, “We strongly condemn discrimination of any kind and are committed to preventing it on our platform. This report is flawed to its core with a predetermined conclusion not grounded in facts.” 

According to the report, one driver said that “a rider told me to go back to my country, that I am taking jobs from Americans,” and promised to “make sure of that.” Another driver wrote, “A rider called me a ‘sh— Hispanic’ and told me he would do everything possible to have me fired from Uber.”

And what happened to these drivers? They were deactivated. 

East Asian drivers reported the highest rate of deactivation, with 80 percent of East Asian drivers polled experiencing some form of deactivation. “I think, perhaps, that anti-Asian sentiment during the pandemic in particular had some role,” said Kao. Safety protocols, such as masking, did not help. 

Data from the report Fired by an app. Graphic by Chuqin Jiang.

Of those polled, 70 percent of East Asian drivers reported the highest rate of customer discrimination, followed by 67 percent of South Asians, 69 percent of Black drivers, 58 percent of Latinx drivers and 33 percent of white drivers.

Some 42 percent of deactivations were triggered by passenger complaints, according to the study. “The companies not only fail to properly investigate or protect them from this abuse, they rely on unchecked customer ratings and complaints that are infected by this kind of discrimination and bias, which then affects the driver’s pay and their ability to stay on the platforms,” said Kao. 

Language proficiency also plays a role, with 86 percent of drivers who do not speak English experiencing deactivation, compared to 61 percent of drivers who are fluent in English. “This job is more suitable for those who are native English speakers, I guess,” Mike Liu, a Chinese driver, told Mission Local. “Some new Chinese immigrant drivers only speak enough English to say hello and goodbye, and you can imagine that they may not be very popular with passengers.”

Sexual harassment is also a problem, with 53 percent of female drivers and 41 percent male drivers reporting it. 

One driver recalled asking a rider who was masturbating in the car to get out. Afterwards, the rider filed an official complaint of being forcibly removed, and the driver was terminated for 10 days. A female driver reported how a customer, also masturbating, reached under her blouse, pulled her breast out of her bra and sucked on her nipple. All she could do was panic because she was driving on the freeway. 

Verbal threats or even physical harm are also a part of the job. One driver reported to Uber that a passenger threatened to kill him after the rider urinated in the car. Uber, the driver said, did nothing. Often Uber will take action by “unmatching” that particular rider and driver, but there’s no means to stop that passenger from being violent to another driver, according to the report.

Deactivation can take a toll on drivers. For 86 percent of survey respondents, deactivation resulted in financial hardships. Others felt the companies’ response to harassment has fueled the deactivation trend. Only 3 percent of drivers surveyed said rideshare companies thoroughly addressed their complaints, while 30 percent were left without explanation for their deactivation.

A driver wrote that when he tried to appeal his deactivation at the Uber Driver Hub, the Uber staff member who received him there “was not treating me like a human. Once you are deactivated, they think you are a bad person. They just believe whatever the rider said.”

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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  1. This article is just scratching the surface. Uber/Lyft believe the customer/rider is the king because that’s the source of their bread and butter. The driver is on Slave wage and is treated like filth by Uber/Lyft. Most drivers on the platform drive as a means to earn a living. No one with a decent job can afford to be on that platform for one microsecond. Uber/Lyft can do better and should do better and should stop exploiting drivers.

  2. Uber just blindly tusts the customers and restaurants. They don’t care about the drivers. In one case, I know that a restaurant worker purposefully shook the contents of the food violently before handing it over to the food delivery agent. The customer gave a bad rating to the delivery person. The delivery person has no proof of what happened at the restaurant. The restaurant lady was a racist. They don’t like Asians to deliver their food. They don’t like to work fast and hard for the same amount of per hour pay they get. The driver bears the cost .. Uber shouldnt show the name and the photo of the driver in the app for the customer or for the restaurant. There are many racists around..

  3. I drive for Lyft and was smacked in the back of the head by a prostitute because I would not wait for her to “finish” her job upon arrival. While I reported too Lyft they were slow to respond and when they did promised to follow up but never heard anything after it was reported. I through her out of my car and almost called the police. Its very rare that something like this happens but when it does you would assume that LYFT / UBER would at least consider your side of the story but they do not. Drivers not matter if you have a solid 5.00 rating and thousands of rides to them you are replaceable. But passengers bring them money and thats all they care about.

  4. I thought Uber and Lyft were rapaciously exploiting people and they should be glad to be free of that exploitation? It’s so hard to keep up with progressive ideology.

  5. perhaps it would be good for drivers to invest in a camera system so they can have proof of customer’s behaviors to send to the company and then sue the companies if they are still taking the side of rider complaints. once in court, it might be easier to have access to information on how many times riders have had complaints made against them by drivers and how the company dealt with the problem by deactivating the drivers.