Meta charged with human trafficking and union busting in Kenya

Facebook’s parent company, Meta Platforms, and its largest outsourcing partner in Africa are facing new allegations of forced labour, human trafficking and union busting in Kenya.

Daniel Motaung, a former Facebook outsourced content moderator, filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Nairobi accusing Meta and outsourcing company Sama of multiple violations of the Kenyan constitution. The lawsuit follows a TIME story published in February titled “Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop,” in which Motaung and other current and former Sama employees first gave their accounts of widespread trauma, wages as low as $1.50 an hour, and alleged repression. union.

Self-described “ethical artificial intelligence” company Sama fired Motaung in 2019 after he led more than 100 of his fellow Facebook content moderators in an attempt to unionize for better pay and conditions. of work. Her termination letter said that her actions put Sama’s relationship with Facebook “at great risk.”

At work, for around $2.20 an hour, Motaung says she witnessed disturbing content that included violent beheadings and sexual abuse of children. He now regularly experiences flashbacks and nightmares, and says the requirement to watch videos of innocent people being kidnapped and killed has left him with severe anxiety in public spaces and difficulty finding another job. He remains unemployed and was recently diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a diagnosis shared by many of his former colleagues.

Read more: Inside the African exploitation of Facebook

“It is not right that we can be exploited by big corporate for-profit companies,” Motaung said in a phone interview Monday from his home in South Africa. “They come here and say they are going to save us, only to blow us up and throw us away. I want to achieve an end to that.”

Sama has said that Motaung was fired for the legitimate reason of intimidating and coercing his colleagues.

on demand

The civil suit filed Tuesday is the first of its kind, Motaung’s lawyers say, because it seeks not only compensation but also sweeping reforms that could force Facebook to change its content moderation practices globally. The lawsuit accuses Meta and Sama (formerly known as Samasource) of multiple violations of the Kenyan constitution.

“We cannot have secure social networks if the workers who protect us are toiling away in a digital sweatshop,” said Cori Crider, director of the London-based legal NGO Foxglove, which represents Motaung, in a statement. “We hope that this case will spread throughout the continent and the world. Sama’s office in Nairobi is Facebook’s moderation center for much of eastern and southern Africa. Overhauling the Facebook factory here will not only affect these workers, but should improve the experience for Facebook users in Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia and other African countries.”

“We also hope that Daniel’s case sends a clear message to Facebook: The days when you could get away with treating your content moderators as disposable and scaring them into silence are over,” Crider added. “Any reform we win here, Facebook can afford to implement everywhere, and we’ll be pushing to make that happen. It’s about time Facebook treated these people with dignity and respect.”

Sama has previously denied union exploitation and busting, and Meta has previously said it requires its outsourcing partners to provide “industry-leading pay, benefits and support.” Sama spokeswoman Suzin Wold and Meta spokesman Ben Walters said Monday that their companies could not comment on specific claims until they had each seen a copy of the lawsuit.

Human trafficking accusations

In perhaps its most explosive allegation, the lawsuit alleges that Sama and Meta engaged in forced labor by placing “misleading job advertisements” that failed to inform applicants that they would be working as Facebook content moderators, or warned them that they would see disturbing content. that could result in trauma, alleged practices that were first reported by TIME.

The suit argues that this amounted to human trafficking in the cases of the dozens of employees Sama brought to Kenya, allegedly under false pretenses, from other parts of Africa.

“These misleading advertisements deliberately targeted Kenyans and Africans from disadvantaged backgrounds who, after being tricked into getting a job they didn’t know they had applied for, were trapped in a dangerous job without a safety net,” Motaung’s lawyers said. , Foxglove and the Nairobi-based law firm Nzili and Sumbi Advocates in a statement. (In his responses to TIME in February, Sama said he had updated his onboarding policies since the events described in the story “to be more transparent about what to expect,” and that his employees apply and work of their own free will.)

The suit alleges a number of other violations of Kenyan law, including wage theft, racial discrimination, psychological torture, unequal pay for equal work, and neglect in failing to provide adequate psychosocial support. Meta and Sama are alleged to have violated Kenya’s constitutional protections to freedom of association, freedom of expression, dignity, privacy, fair pay and reasonable working conditions.

Read more: Facebook content moderators in Kenya to receive pay raise after TIME investigation

Meta is trying to remove his name from the case. In a letter dated April 21, his lawyers said the company was “not responsible for or aware of” any of the allegations made by Motaung’s lawyers in a March trial. letter. Meta’s lawyers said that Motaung was employed by Sama, not Meta, and that “therefore, no action can be brought against Meta for any right and/or obligation allegedly owed to the Claimant in respect of his employment with Sama.” , since Meta was not and has never been his patron.”

Motaung’s lawyers say their client will argue in response that Sama is an “agent” of Meta, because Sama’s employees use Facebook’s own internal systems, working closely with its staff, according to a work schedule set by Meta. . They will argue that Meta hires Sama to carry out unpleasant tasks that would otherwise have to be done in-house at Meta. “The environment created by [Sama] Y [Meta] demanding and stressful, involving intense monitoring, stringent performance metrics to meet volume and accuracy targets, extreme time pressure [and] limited recovery time, all of which could increase psychological stress,” the suit says. “This extremely pressurized environment compounds the effects of repeated exposure to toxic content.”

Sama’s lawyers, in a letter dated April 20, denied the accusations against the company outlined in the March letter. “Our client is committed to ensuring that his employees are not only treated in accordance with applicable law, including freedom of association, but are treated fairly and responsibly,” his letter said. “This includes providing a full suite of support and benefits to our employees.”

forcing a change

The lawsuit requests unspecified compensation, to be set by the court, from Meta and Sama for all current and former content moderators on Sama.

Among the many other demands in the lawsuit are that all of Facebook’s outsourced content moderators receive the same protections and psychological care as Facebook employees. It also calls on the courts to ensure that Sama and Meta publicly affirm the right of all moderators to unionize and speak publicly; and for all outsourced content moderators to receive a salary increase equivalent to a salary similar to that of Facebook’s in-house content moderation specialists. He requests that the Kenyan authorities strip Sama of an export license that grants tax breaks to the company.

The suit requests that Sama undergo an independent human rights audit and then submit monthly reports to the court on the status of its implementation of the measures requested by the auditor. “We are pushing for them to fix the system,” says Mutemi. “We want monitored structural change.”

Motaung, who has a six-month-old daughter, says she first joined Sama “on a mission to lift me and my family out of poverty.” Now that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, she says she fears her mission will never be completed. She “she has interfered with my attempts to progress in life.”

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write to Billy Perrigo at [email protected]

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