Kenya-based Facebook, TikTok, ChatGPT content moderators resolve to form union to fight exploitation, abuse

As the role of social media in shaping public discourse continues to expand, 150 content moderators subcontracted to handle ChatGPT,  TikTok and Facebook, are taking a stand against these tech giants’ mistreatment of their workers.

In a first-of-its-kind event, moderators covering 14 different African languages came together on Labour Day to vote on the formation of a union that aims to address these issues.

The tremendous growth of platforms like Facebook and TikTok has led to a series of side effects that have gone unaddressed. One critical issue is how inadequate content moderation affects users and entire societies. When content moderation fails, it has dire consequences.

The incitement of violence online can lead to the loss of lives offline, as seen in the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia. Additionally, the spread of political falsehoods has the potential to compromise the integrity of elections, even in countries like Kenya.

Additionally, the mistreatment of moderators and tech workers is a growing concern. Daniel Motaung, a former content moderator who got fired after trying to lead the unionization effort, told the Nation that “Content moderation is in a state of crisis and content moderators are paying for it with their lives. They serve as the first line of defense against harmful content, yet they face hazardous work conditions without hazard pay. Mental health support is severely lacking, job security is scarce, and some moderators feel silenced by strict non-disclosure agreements.”

This problem is worsened by the tech giants’ lack of investment in entities that they refer to as the “rest of world” countries. For example, in 2021, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal uncovered that Meta’s Facebook at the time spent 87 percent of its misinformation resources on the United States and Western Europe, leaving the rest of the world vulnerable to the dangers of the spread of false information.

This is not the first time content moderators have attempted to form a union. In 2019, content moderators at Sama, the Nairobi-based office responsible for Facebook’s content moderation, attempted to unionize due to low pay and poor working conditions.

Workers threatened to strike if their demands for better pay and conditions were not met. Daniel Motaung, the strike leader, was fired and accused of putting the relationship between Sama and Facebook at risk. Sama also told other participants in the labor action effort that they were expendable, leading the workers to stand down.

Critics argue that outsourcing allows tech giants to exploit workers and avoid responsibility for union-busting. Nerima Wako, executive director of Siasa a place a youth focussed civil society group in Kenya told the Nation that, “The outsourcing model effectively distances platforms from any accountability, enabling them to evade responsibility when issues arise, as they are not legally registered in the country and thus, not subject to its laws. This strategy serves as a convenient scapegoat for these companies, allowing them to sidestep the consequences of their actions.” COTU Secretary General Francis Atwoli, highlighted such outsourcing practices in his annual Labor Day speech terming them as facilitators of modern-day slavery.

The unionization effort by the moderators comes at a significant time for the moderators. Earlier this year, in a legal case that could have wide-ranging implications, content moderators based in Kenya filed a lawsuit against Facebook, alleging unlawful termination, discrimination, and violation of their rights.

The content moderators, who were contracted through Sama, experienced deteriorating working conditions following the filing of Daniel Motuang’s case in May 2022, which cited various human rights abuses, including human trafficking. According to the lawsuit, Sama began dismissing employees without justifiable cause and failed to hire replacements despite the acknowledged demand for more content moderators.

The suit further underscores the mental health toll of content moderation work, the inadequate support provided to workers, and inconsistencies in pay. A theme that repeated itself across various content moderation facilities set up by tech giants across the world.

The gathering provided moderators with an opportunity to share their experiences and discuss the challenges they face in their work. Cori Crider, co-founder of FoxGlove, the non-profit that has been supporting content moderators to organize told the Nation that, “the content moderators coming together the way they did today is nothing short of making History.

This is the biggest group of content moderators that has ever come together anywhere. What this means is that their resolution to form a union will mean that they will no longer just be a dirty little secret of tech companies.”

By forming a union, Facebook moderators hope to rebalance power dynamics and hold tech giants accountable for their:g digital landscape, this move signals a critical step towards ensuring the safety and well-being of both content moderators and the global digital community that relies on their vigilance.

Richard Mathenge, one of the moderators who was present and worked on ChatGPT, Open AI’s globally renowned AI product told the Nation that, “The union will be a very huge and positive step for us in terms of understanding how we can bring our voices to the table and address the conditions that we have been trying to get highlighted for some time.”

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