Mental trauma: African content moderators push big tech on rights

Uniting for better conditions

16 October 2023 - 09:06 By Nita Bhalla
subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now
A union was established with the help of former Facebook moderator and whistleblower Daniel Motaung, a South African who has filed a lawsuit alleging irregular pay, union-busting and inadequate mental health support. File photo.
A union was established with the help of former Facebook moderator and whistleblower Daniel Motaung, a South African who has filed a lawsuit alleging irregular pay, union-busting and inadequate mental health support. File photo.
Image: 123RF/cienpies

Hundreds of Africans tasked with scouring platforms such as Facebook, TikTok and ChatGPT for graphic content have joined the continent's first union for content moderators, but organisers said some fear losing their jobs if their membership is revealed.

The union was established in Nairobi, Kenya in May with the help of former Facebook moderator and whistleblower Daniel Motaung, who experienced firsthand the mental toll of the gruelling work, and the challenges of holding big tech to account.

Last year Motaung, a South African, filed a lawsuit against Facebook's parent company Meta and its local outsourcing firm Sama, alleging irregular pay, union-busting and inadequate mental health support resulting in trauma.

That suit, filed by Motaung on behalf of a group, is working its way through the Kenyan courts.

The union is the logical next step in Motaung's battle to eradicate detrimental working practices in a billion-dollar industry that employs thousands of people, often on very low wages, to protect social media users from harmful content.

Motaung, who will speak at the Thomson Reuters Foundation's annual trust conference this week, said the union aims to ensure the rights of hundreds of content moderators in Africa who are employed through third-party outsourcing companies.

"The union is to fight against the exploitation of workers in Africa by big tech firms, especially in terms of their mental health and wages," said Motaung, who suffers from mental trauma after being exposed to posts such as beheadings and child abuse.

"Since May we have had more members joining the union, but it's been a difficult process," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation, citing challenges such as workers' concerns over job losses and the long process of registering the union in Kenya.

As well as facing Motaung's lawsuit, Meta and US-headquartered Sama are also being sued by a group of more than 180 former moderators who claim they were fired for complaining about poor working conditions and attempts to form a union.

Both firms said they could not comment on the lawsuits, but Sama said it supported its employees right to unionise and was involved in mediation efforts in the second lawsuit.

Globally, thousands of moderators are employed to review graphic social media posts that could depict violence, nudity, racism or other offensive content, with many working for third party contractors.

But content moderators in countries such as Kenya have increasingly complained about issues such as lack of mental health support, poor pay and short-term contracts.

Motaung is seen as one of the pioneers of the movement to demand accountability from some of the world's richest companies.

At the May meeting in Nairobi, a hub for outsourced content moderation in East Africa,  more than 150 tech workers, encouraged by Motaung and others, voted to form the union.

Today the membership stands at around 400, according to organisers.

Richard Mathenge, who was last month recognised in Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in AI for his role in organising the union, said members were largely from Kenya, but also included Nairobi-based workers from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Ethiopia and South Africa.

The new union members include former employees of Sama, which stopped providing content moderation services for Facebook in January, and another outsourcing firm Majorel, which provides moderation services for Facebook and TikTok, and has previously done the same for Open AI's ChatGPT in Kenya.

Mathenge, who worked for Facebook alongside Motaung and then for ChatGPT at Majorel, said some workers were worried that joining the union could cost them their jobs so they joined secretly.

"There are few jobs in Africa, and many are breadwinners. If they lose this job it's tough to find another one," he said.

"But some workers are beginning to see that our issues are not isolated and that as a collective we can show our power and improve labour rights in the tech industry. The status quo cannot continue."

Digital rights experts said legal challenges have an important part to play in safeguarding the rights of African workers in the rapidly growing tech sector, but the role of unionisation is also vital.

Unions can provide tech workers with a collective voice and bargaining power that goes beyond individual legal actions.

They can advocate for the specific needs of tech workers and address issues such as exposure to disturbing content or job losses due to artificial intelligence that may not be covered by existing labour laws.

"For the sector to grow and thrive in a sustainable manner, it is essential workers have the ability to be able to negotiate for their rights through the form of unions," said Udbhav Tiwari, head of global product policy at the internet browser company Mozilla Corporation.

"I if the growth of a sector is predicated upon how few protections it gives its workers, it leads to a race to the bottom."

The push for collective rights goes hand-in-hand with the legal battle to compel tech giants, like Meta, to pay more attention to those who work for them around the world.

In 2021 a California judge approved an $85m (R1.6bn) settlement between Facebook and more than 10,000 moderators who said the company had failed to protect them from psychological injuries due to their exposure to graphic and violent imagery.

Facebook did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to take measures to provide its content moderators, who are employed by third-party vendors, with safer work environments.

Motaung's lawsuit is the first of its kind in Africa. It seeks financial compensation, an order that outsourced moderators have the same healthcare and pay as Meta employees, and the right to unionise.

A spokesperson for Meta said  it "takes responsibility to the people who review content for Meta seriously" and requires its partners "to provide industry-leading pay, benefits and support".

"We also encourage content reviewers to raise issues when they become aware of them and regularly conduct independent audits to ensure our partners are meeting the high standards we expect of them," the spokesperson told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The company has appealed against the lawsuit, arguing it cannot be sued in Kenya as it has no official presence in the East African nation.

Sama said it could not comment on the lawsuit, but added they were involved in mediation efforts on the lawsuit brought by more than 180 moderators.

"We are pleased to be in mediation and believe it is in the best interest of all parties to come to an amicable resolution," a Sama spokesperson told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Sama has policies and training in place to support freedom of association, and if/when that occurs, Sama will happily engage with that group. We applauded the news of the formation of a content moderators union in Kenya," the spokesperson said.

Motaung knows he is embarking on a long road but believes it is a battle worth fighting.

A legal victory could lead to increased scrutiny and legal challenges in Africa and other regions, particularly in terms of labour rights, workplace conditions and liability for content moderation decisions, he said.

"I think the court case has a long way to go, but if the verdict is in our favour, it could set a significant legal precedent and open the door for other platform workers to file similar lawsuits," said Motaung.

Thomson Reuters Foundation 

subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.