Facebook moderator sues company over ‘human trafficking’ — Analysis

Former Facebook moderator Daniel Motaung has sued the social media giant’s parent company Meta and its African subcontractor Sama, alleging in the suit filed on Tuesday that the company “Current and former moderators were forced to work for wages and trafficked in labor.

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Motaung claims he was laid off for organizing a strike in 2019 and trying to unionize Sama’s employees. The subcontractor, he alleges, engaged in a “Recruitment process that is deceptive” by advertising call center jobs that turned out to be content moderation jobs – with all the exposure to psychologically harmful content that entailed.

These deceptive descriptions of the content moderator position (call centre agents, agent, and content moderator) are intended to mislead applicants and trick them into believing they’re Facebook Content Moderators.,” Motaung’s lawyers declared in their filing, noting that “applicants who responded to the call for ‘Agents’ were especially deceived.”

Sama not only failed to give employees adequate mental health support, it deliberately perpetuated a “Work environment that is toxic” that prohibited moderators from airing their grievances with third parties, including Meta employees, the filing alleged. Workers’ screen time and movement during work hours were tracked using Meta’s software, and they were denied “You may need to take unplanned breaks, particularly after you have been exposed to graphic material,” instead receiving an hour in “wellness breaks” per week – time some employees report having to “Beg” to receive. 

Employees at the site, located in Nairobi, were drawn from all over Africa, as far away as Ethiopia, Uganda, and Somalia, as well as Motaung’s native South Africa, and only learned the true nature of their jobs after signing contracts and relocating – meaning they could not simply turn around and go home if they found the true nature of the job too disturbing.

An exposé on Sama’s content moderation center published in Time magazine revealed the company paid the lowest rate of any Meta subcontractor – as low as $1.50 per hour, according to the report – and while the company upped workers’ pay in response, its PR problems have persisted. Motaung’s lawyers threatened to sue Sama if Sama failed to make improvements to the treatment of its employees a month earlier.  

Meta has sought to distance itself from the company, declaring it requires its partners to “Provide industry-leading support, pay and benefits,” while Sama has in turn denied any wrongdoing regarding Motaung’s departure. The company claimed his employment was “Employees who have taken unacceptable acts against their fellow workers and put themselves at risk were fired” and insisted the process was “Fair, transparent, well-documented.”

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Moderators at Sama threatened to strike in the summer of 2019 unless they received better pay and working conditions, but rather than negotiate with the workers, the company flew two higher-ups from the US to “Deal with” the uprising – a process that ended with Motaung’s dismissal and the accusation that his actions had put the relationship between Sama and Facebook (now Meta) at “great risk.” Rather than face a similar fate, the other would-be strikers returned to work.

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