By Rina Chandran
BANGKOK, Aug 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When an Indian customer of online food delivery service Zomato tweeted that he had cancelled his order because it had been assigned to a non-Hindu worker, and his request for a Hindu denied, thousands weighed in.
"Food doesn't have a religion. It is a religion," Zomato responded in a tweet that garnered about 95,000 likes and thousands of comments that supported and criticised the company's stance.
Last month's incident was among a long series of allegations of discrimination related to religion, race, gender or sexual orientation in the so-called gig economy that also includes ride hailing apps Uber and Ola, and home-sharing platform Airbnb.
The platforms are credited with creating millions of jobs, giving homeowners an additional income, and providing mobility in underserved areas and for women who fear harassment on public transport.
Yet they are also responsible for entrenching biases and deepening socio-economic divides in cities, and increasing the vulnerability of minority communities, according to analysts.
"There is now ample evidence of racial discrimination on gig economy platforms, and I would not be at all surprised to see religious discrimination also," said Don MacKenzie, an assistant professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"The consequences of this discrimination fall hardest on those who are discriminated against, but may also have social consequences for cities in general," said MacKenzie, who has studied racial discrimination at ride-hailing apps.
More than a third of the global workforce will be in the gig economy by 2023 - according to Australian recruitment agency Robert Half, and other industry experts - with independent workers contracted for short-term jobs such as food delivery and car rides.
Governments are struggling to keep pace with the industry's rapid growth, and its informal nature means that it is harder to enforce anti-discriminatory regulations or social protections.
Uber and Ola did not respond to requests for comment.
"Zomato's core values have no place for prejudice and intolerance," the company said in a statement.
MacKenzie's study in Seattle and Boston found "significant evidence" of racial discrimination, with black riders and those with "black-sounding" names facing longer wait times and more cancellations than white riders or those with white-sounding names.
Drivers discriminated by not going to certain neighbourhoods; by declining bookings from certain types of passengers or cancelling bookings; and by leaving low ratings based on race, gender, or socio-economic status, it showed.
"If discrimination deters certain classes of individuals from using a platform, then that platform will support fewer transactions," MacKenzie told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The thinner market that results could mean fewer options for remaining users, leading to longer wait times for a ride, for example."
Workers also suffer: the "Uberisation" of India's domestic-work market has entrenched informality, insecurity and discrimination, and excluded those without smartphones, the London-based Overseas Development Institute said in a report.
There is also a lack of transparency around algorithms used to assess and rank workers, and allocate work, said Alysia Blackham, an associate professor at Melbourne Law School.
"Discrimination is potentially rife in the gig economy," she said in a recent paper.
Examples of discrimination abound from New York to Mumbai.
An Indian user of Ola said he cancelled a ride because the driver was Muslim. In another incident last year, an Ola driver refused to take a customer to his destination because it was in a Muslim neighbourhood.
Ola said at the time it did not condone choosing drivers based on their religious background, or discrimination by its drivers.
In another incident that went viral on social media last year, an Uber driver in New York was kicked off the app after he asked a lesbian couple to leave the car.
Uber said its guidelines did not allow drivers to discriminate or refuse to provide services based on a person's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Airbnb has faced complaints and lawsuits over racial bias, and even a social media protest, #AirbnbWhileBlack.
A 2016 study by Harvard University professors found requests from guests with distinctively African-American names were 16% less likely to be accepted than those from identical guests with white names.
"In cities, there is already implicit segregation in housing and in labour markets along the lines of race, religion and caste," said Aditi Surie, a senior associate with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements.
"These platforms entrench the biases and divides."
Cities have found ways to work around some biases.
In San Francisco, long before ride-hailing apps, "homobiles" offered a safe option to LGBT+ members frustrated with being denied rides or fearful of being attacked.
In several Indian cities, minority religious groups that were denied homes, set up their own housing enclaves.
But with more transactions moving online, the on-demand economy exerts enormous influence on how residents in cities live, work, eat and interact with each other, said Surie.
While the companies have fairly strong non-discrimination policies, enforcement is difficult, said MacKenzie.
"Legislation and regulation may have a role to play. Another option is to implement stronger penalties for parties who cancel a transaction," he said.
Other suggestions to eliminate bias include limiting the data available - such as numbers rather than names, no profile photographs - and prioritising minority communities and underserved areas.
Airbnb partnered with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to add more black hosts. Zomato added an LGBTQIA-friendly tag for restaurants on its app.
As governments struggle to keep pace with the fast evolving industry, the platforms themselves may be best positioned to force change, said Surie.
"They have changed consumer behaviour so quickly, and they have the power to change it further. Perhaps that's the better way to battle bias," she said.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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