According to a new book by two professors of women’s and gender studies at San Francisco State University, truck drivers face many of the same issues that have existed since the invention of the automobile. While drivers’ struggles to earn a living have generated much fanfare and legislation over the past decade, age-old stereotypes also dominate the occupation of those who drive passengers from place to place.
Julietta Hua and Kasturi Ray wrote “Spent Behind the Wheel: Drivers’ Labor in the Uber Economy” (University of Minnesota Press) after observing a correlation between the tech industry boom and growing wealth inequality in the region of the Bay after 2007 – Financial Crisis of 2008. The SF State Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and the George and Judy Marcus Funds provided grants to support the book.
“We have seen, much to our dismay, the growth of construction workers from historically marginalized populations,” Ray said. “Working conditions in the new gig economy weren’t so new after all. This is something racialized men have experienced in the United States throughout history.
Deep-rooted stereotypes persist about the danger of the immigrant driver transporting others, they found.
“A city council member actually called taxi drivers potential rapists for your wives and daughters,” Hua said. “In the world of work, I don’t think people have necessarily thought about how the gender of drivers is a big part of keeping drivers in low-wage situations.”
Drivers and judges both pointed out to Hua and Ray that non-white workers receive an exorbitant number of parking tickets and traffic violations.
Difficulty using the bathroom has been linked to high rates of cancer and other illnesses among taxi drivers, according to a Columbia University study. Businesses are more likely to deny men of color use of public restrooms, Hua and Ray said.
“They’re racialized in the servant class, where you’re not supposed to have a body; you’re just supposed to drive and fill up,” Ray said. “In this way, gender, race, nationality, class and privilege are clearly visible in the health risks taxi drivers take on us every day.”
Kasturi Ray (left) and Julietta Hua
Hua and Ray researched the book through first-hand interviews with drivers, union organizers and licensing board members. They also looked at case law, scholarly publications, social media posts, municipal taxi commission public meetings, and media coverage. They spent a lot of time with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and spoke to former Uber, Lyft and Bay Area taxi drivers.
Their analysis is based on a feminist perspective and their scientific interest in the work. Combining their respective expertise in sex work and domestic work, they define taxi and VTC drivers as “reproductive workers”. In other words, the job is to meet the needs and wants of another person, such as a housekeeper or a nanny. Unlike most other “reproductive work” jobs that have been “feminized,” professional passenger drivers have traditionally been males of color, mostly immigrants.
These nuanced issues are something to keep in mind while on a ride.
“Understand that you’re in someone’s workplace and you could very well be their home,” Ray said. “Make your expectations consistent with workers’ lives. Support the drivers’ fights for dignity, because it’s about you.
Hua added, “It’s really about not taking things for granted and fairly rewarding people’s work. Support minimum wage laws — like the fight for $15 to raise the national minimum wage — and other efforts that try to improve working conditions for everyone.
Learn more about the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at SF State.