Uber Will End Forced Arbitration & Change How It Handles Sexual Assault Cases

Update: 1:35 p.m., May 15, 2018: Uber hoped its move to end forced arbitration would lead others in the tech industry to act, and it's done just that. This afternoon, Uber's biggest U.S. rival, Lyft, announced it will end mandatory arbitration for passengers, drivers, and employees. Like Uber, Lyft is also removing its confidentiality provision for sexual assault survivors. The rideshare company issued the following statement:
"Lyft has a longstanding track record of action in support of the communities we serve, from our commitment to the ACLU to standing up for pay equity and racial equality. The #metoo movement has brought to life important issues that must be addressed by society, and we’re committed to doing our part. Today, 48 hours prior to an impending lawsuit against their company, Uber made the good decision to adjust their policies. We agree with the changes and have removed the confidentiality requirement for sexual assault victims, as well as ended mandatory arbitration for those individuals so that they can choose which venue is best for them. This policy extends to passengers, drivers and Lyft employees."
This piece was originally published at 6:00 a.m. on May 15, 2018.
Last month, Susan Fowler — the former Uber engineer whose explosive blog post redefined the meaning of "company culture problems" — announced a new career goal: Ending forced arbitration for employees everywhere.
Her calls for change did not come without precedent. As #MeToo enveloped the tech industry throughout 2017, many people voiced concerns about Silicon Valley's forced arbitration agreements, which are often embedded in employee contracts and restrict their control should an issue of harassment or discrimination ever arise.
In forced arbitration, the employee and employer bring their issue to an arbitrator who will hear both sides and make a decision. According to the National Association of Consumer Advocates the employee is not allowed to sue, join a class action lawsuit, or appeal the decision. It's a system that heavily favors the employer, who can settle a dispute in private, without risking the bad press that comes in court.
At the end of March, Fowler posted a Twitter request to new Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi: Make good on your claims to "do the right thing" and end forced arbitration at Uber. Khosrowshahi replied, telling her, "I will take a look at your suggestion — I will take it seriously but we have to take all of our constituents into consideration."
Turns out, Khosrowshahi kept his word: Today, Uber announced it will end forced arbitration for employees, riders, and drivers with individual claims of sexual assault and sexual harassment. It will be up to the person making the claim to decide where it is resolved: Mediation, arbitration, or open court.
"I think it was an unspoken agreement not to go first," Rachel Holt, Uber's Vice President and Regional General Manager of the U.S. and Canada, told Refinery29 of the tech industry's reluctance to get rid of forced arbitration clauses for employees and users.
Uber is the first company to include users and just the second major tech company to take a public stand against forced arbitration in the last six months. In December, Microsoft announced it would no longer require arbitration for sexual harassment claims from employees, and endorsed legislation introduced by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Lindsey Graham to end the practice.
Uber also announced that moving forward, survivors can settle claims without a confidentiality provision. This means they are free to speak about their experiences.
"Whether to find closure, seek treatment, or become advocates for change themselves, survivors will be in control of whether to share their stories," Tony West, Uber's chief legal offier, wrote in a blog post announcing the news. "Enabling survivors to make this choice will help to end the culture of silence that surrounds sexual violence."
Finally, Uber said it will release a safety transparency report that "will include data on sexual assaults and other incidents that occur on the Uber platform." The company did not say when or how often the report will be released, and emphasized the challenge of compiling such a document without an industry standard for data collection.
"I think there will be a learning curve on the ways they're collecting info," Kristen Houser, the chief public affairs officer at Raliance, a national collaborative fighting sexual violence, told Refinery29. (Raliance has consulted with Uber since November 2017 but is not working on the upcoming safety transparency report.) "Victims often give impartial reports and you don’t always get all the info in the first report. If you have a trained person on the phone, they can ask follow-up questions. If somebody uses a reporting feature on an app, you won’t have the opportunity to ask refining questions. The data you’re collecting from people is only as good as what they’re giving."
Today's announcement follows a CNN investigation published last month, which revealed 103 claims of sexual assault against Uber drivers and noted a lack of publicly available data for the number of sexual assaults by drivers at any rideshare company.
Uber said they will make their methodology for compiling the report open-source in hopes that the rest of the industry will do the same. An outside firm will audit the report (although Uber has not named who), and they have recruited a lauded group of advisors to help: Ebony Tucker, the advocacy director for the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence; Tina Tchen, a founder of the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund; and Cindy Southworth, the executive vice president of the national network to end domestic violence.
The three announcements made today by no means absolve Uber of past errors it has made when handling sexual assault cases. But they do show the company is committed to investing in people, not just product, and that's at least a step in the right direction.
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