This was supposed to be
The San Francisco-based company isn’t a stranger to issues of racial discrimination. White hosts have been called out for not renting properties to people with Black-sounding names. Airbnb has even been taken to court by users claiming they were denied stays because of the color of their skin. Until now, the criticism has centered mainly around Airbnb’s rental platform rather than the company itself. Airbnb’s cuts to its full-time staff got a remarkable amount of positive coverage as layoffs go, thanks to measures that included generous severance packages and the creation of an online talent directory for prospective employers to browse.
Former contract workers have had a very different experience. Shiva Kumar was one of those who lost a job. The 45-year-old had been helping Airbnb expand its business travel listings for about 12 months. While he says the company is more diverse than other tech companies he’s worked for, he noticed a huge proportion of the minority staff he encountered were contract hires. “Technology is primarily a male-dominated field and, within that, White male-dominated,” Kumar says. “Men of color like me, or other Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Chinese, while being a good majority of the workforce in any tech company, are very commonly underpaid and exploited.”
A woman of color who was hired as a contractor recalls pulling aside a fellow woman of color on her second day. “Gut-check me here,” she remembers saying. “I’m noticing that all the contractors are people of color, and most of the full-time employees are White.” Her colleague whispered agreement. “The branding is all about belonging, but that’s not how you feel. Airbnb is the most hypocritical company I’ve ever worked for,” the contractor says. Like several of the more than 20 former Airbnb contractors Bloomberg Businessweek interviewed, she declined to be identified publicly to avoid jeopardizing future job prospects.
Part of the problem is the way technology companies structure their workforces.
“This pattern is very common in the tech industry, and it’s been common for decades,” says Chris Benner, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz who’s studied racial inequality in Silicon Valley for more than 20 years. In a 2016 study he found that in Santa Clara County—the home of Alphabet, Facebook, and Tesla—African Americans and Hispanics made up only 7% of high-skill direct hires at tech companies. But they accounted for 26% of so-called white-collar contractors, such as secretaries and sales representatives, and more than half of blue-collar contractors, such as security guards and janitors.
In Airbnb’s case, the contractors who were let go were employed by
After Bloomberg Businessweek approached Airbnb about this story, the company said in a blog post that 20% of its board and executive team will be people of color by the end of 2021. Internally, teams are being given recruitment and retention goals for minority staff that must be met by 2025. Different security badge colors for contractors are also being eliminated.
That’s little comfort to those who’ve already been laid off. Amy Silverman had worked as a senior photo editor at Airbnb for about a year before her contract role was eliminated. Afterward, she wrote a post on LinkedIn criticizing Airbnb for not including laid-off contract workers in its talent directory. (The company subsequently did include them, but it still highlighted their employment status as contractors.) More than 1,300 people hit “like” on her missive. “The hardest thing,” she says, was “seeing all that positive press and knowing we were totally invisible.”
To contact the author of this story:
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.