Facebook hit with legal threat over unlawful labour practices and union-busting in Kenya

In February 2022, TIME magazine published an article titled, “Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop”, about Sama, a third-party content moderation company for Meta (formerly Facebook) and the company’s largest outsourcing centre in Africa. The company, which deems itself an “‘ethical AI firm” that provides “dignified digital work” to Africans, was accused of exploitative labour practices and union-busting tactics. 

In the summer of 2019, Daniel Motaung – a former Sama employee and whistleblower – organized fellow employees into a union called The Alliance to pen a letter to advocate for better treatment and fair wages. At the time, the employees were paid as little as 70 cents an hour. The Alliance threatened to strike within seven days if Sama did not negotiate. Instead of negotiating, Motaung was terminated from his position and lost his work permit, which forced him to leave the country three weeks later. Other Sama employees were told “that they should stop complaining and get back to work.” 

SRT grantee Foxglove, a UK-based organisation that “works to ensure technology is used for everyone‘s benefit, not just the rich and powerful,” in partnership with the Kenyan law firm Nzili & Sumbi Advocates, is supporting Motaung to bring a legal challenge against the wrongful termination of his job.

As a result of the media pressure, employees of the company have now received pay raises and an opportunity to receive annual bonuses.The company agreed to pay every content moderator an extra 20,000 Kenyan shillings ($176) per month, an increase of between 30 per cent and 50 per cent over their previous salaries. Even with the pay rise, Motaung and his colleagues remain some of Facebook’s lowest-paid workers anywhere in the world. 

In an interview with TIME magazine, Motaung said, “This increase will make a difference but it won’t change their lives. They still won’t be able to buy a house or feed their families in line with the ‘lifting the poor out of poverty’ narrative that Sama continuously boasts about.”

Foxglove points out in an article on the case, “You can’t have safe social media if the moderators are unsafe themselves.” The organisation also launched an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg “calling on him to finally begin treating Facebook’s content moderators – social media’s emergency workers – with the dignity, respect and protection they deserve.” 

While there is more work to be done to end the exploitative practices by Meta and other big technology companies, Motaung and Foxglove are encouraged that their collective activism can lead to positive change. Montaung told TIME: “Organizing works! Keep pushing and you’ll get what you deserve.”

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