Meta Is Trying, and Failing, to Crush Unions in Kenya

Kenyan content moderators at Meta have been fighting for better compensation for workers forced to watch videos of murder, rape, and ethnic cleansing. Meta was initially unwilling to give in to these demands, but Kenyan courts are intervening on the side of workers.

Kenyan lawyer Mercy Mutemi (center) speaks to the media after filing a lawsuit against Meta accusing Facebook’s parent company of fanning violence and hate speech in Africa at the Milimani Law Courts in Nairobi, Kenya, on December 14, 2022. (Yasuyoshi Chiba /AFP via Getty Images)

Meta is in hot water with Kenyan courts after three suits brought against it in the last year highlight its unwillingness to work with organized labor for better working conditions.

Last December, two Ethiopian researchers brought suit against Meta, the parent company of Facebook, for failing to adequately moderate extreme and violent content during the ongoing Tigray War, a devastating internal conflict in Ethiopia that has since left over six hundred people dead.

The researchers, Fisseha Tekle and Abrham Meareg, filed suit in the capital city of Nairobi, Kenya, where Meta’s content moderation business is located. Meareg sued because her father, Professor Meareg Amare Abrha, was murdered after his identity and location was doxed on Facebook during the conflict’s resulting information war online.

A court in Nairobi granted them leave to serve Meta at its California headquarters after it could not locate any physical office space in the country. That’s because Meta uses a third-party company called Sama to employ approximately 150 remote workers around Nairobi to moderate content from East Africa to the South African tip, an area that comprises almost five hundred million people.

The petitioners asked Meta to put an end to viral hate on Facebook, increase content review and moderation in an actual office hub in Kenya, and create a $1.6-billion compensation fund.

Five months later, Meta was sued again by Daniel Motaung, a former subcontracting content moderator with Sama. Motaung alleges to have been fired from Sama after his attempts to unionize moderators, bringing suit to both companies for “forced labor, exploitation, human trafficking, unfair labor relations, union busting and failure to provide ‘adequate’ mental health and psychosocial support.”

Meta struck back in court, demanding its name be removed from the lawsuit because Motaung was not an employee of Meta, but rather Sama. Kenyan courts disagreed, saying there was a case, indicating the likelihood that Sama was established solely to supply Meta with content moderators so that it could comply with and operate through various markets in Africa. Meta has since appealed.

The case caused a small ripple in the mainstream American press, where coverage of labor movements in Africa are almost always relegated to South Africa, if at all. Motaung’s story was highlighted in many places including the establishment magazine Time, which referred to the content moderation offices in Kenya as “Facebook’s African Sweatshop.”

And now last month, a third suit in Kenyan courts alleged that Meta, Sama, and another content review subcontractor called Majorel illegally fired and blacklisted 183 employees. Petitioners claimed that Sama ramped down its content moderation business (likely as a response to unionization efforts) so that Meta could use Luxembourg-based Majorel and instructed Majorel to blacklist specific individuals who had just been fired from Sama.

Despite Meta’s efforts to be relinquished from the suit, in April Kenyan courts again agreed it had jurisdiction to hear disputes around “matters of alleged unlawful and unfair termination of employment on grounds of redundancy” and that it had power “to enforce alleged violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms” by Meta, Sama, and Majorel.

Even if Meta could make the argument that it has no concrete ties to subcontracting companies in Kenya that operate on its behalf, it’s clear the social media company has no intention of bolstering its content moderation operations there.

“There isn’t nearly enough moderation happening outside the English-speaking US and Western Europe — and both workers and users of social media pay a stiff price. Facebook’s Nairobi content moderation covers around five hundred million people, yet of the estimated 15,000 Facebook content moderators in the world, only about 260 of them work in Nairobi. Contrast that with the thousands of moderators working in the US and it’s clear which language markets, and people, Mark Zuckerberg values,” said Martha Dark, founder and director of Foxglove, a London-based tech justice nonprofit.

While based in the UK, Foxglove works internationally and partners with people, supporting these three cases against Meta in Kenya. And they don’t just stop with Meta: “We have our sights on other exploitative tech firms, from Amazon to TikTok,” Dark said.

In 2020, Meta agreed to pay for the mental health care for American employees in a landmark acknowledgment of the mental anguish and toll that content moderation takes on its workforce. A settlement in a San Mateo, California, court paved the way for a $52-million compensation package for former and then current employees to alleviate the mental health issues they developed on the job.

In 2022, a California judge approved $85 million in a second settlement between Facebook and more than ten thousand content moderators who had accused the company of failing to protect them from psychological damages that resulted from the extreme images and video they encountered in content moderation.

But in Africa? Not so fast.

The cost to increase content moderation in Kenya, even through its same subcontracting companies, would have been a drop in the bucket for Meta. The moderators in Kenya make around $2 per hour, where in the United States, moderators earn between $15 and $16 per hour. By working through contracting companies, Meta is immune from having to pay for workers’ health care or transportation — even daily meals and entertainment, which are amenities most of its full-time employees around the world not only enjoy but expect.

The constant exposure of violence — videos of murder, torture, and rape — takes enough of a toll on the human psyche. But on top of that, these Kenyan-based moderators face the additional hardships of feeding their families and paying their bills on a salary of $16 a day. For non-Kenyans it’s even more dire, as they face a precarious choice: keep doing this dangerous work or face losing your work permit and leaving the country, maybe even back to the conflict from which they fled.

“Facebook could choose to directly employ moderators rather than outsourcing them to companies like Sama in Kenya or Accenture in the United States. They could give them the same pay, benefits, and mental health cover as Facebook’s employees at Menlo Park,” said Dark:

The importance of moderators’ work to Facebook’s daily operations is not in doubt. The question, instead, is why Mark Zuckerberg refuses to recognize the vital role of moderators in generating Facebook’s huge revenues? We see no reason apart from greed.

These three suits, along with Motaung’s international press appearances as a result of the crackdown against his nascent union to organize for better pay and working conditions, has created something of a Streisand effect for Meta.

The company’s attempt to jockey and hustle around labor organization in a part of the world where they certainly did not expect it to occur has only brought political and press attention to the continued plight of content moderators in Kenya.

Organizations like Foxglove hope this will cast ripples across the world of social media.

“Everywhere they are, these critical workers don’t get the value and respect they deserve — but these people are demanding their worth. The one-two punch of resolving to form this union — alongside the lawsuit fighting for their jobs — could create two powerful precedents and, hopefully, templates for other workers fighting exploitation by Big Tech around the world,” Dark concluded.