Facebook's decision to outsource the moderation of users' posts created a bonanza of business concentrated in the Irish capital Dublin, but left a growing legacy of former employees claiming life-changing post-traumatic stress.
The trend to locate the roles of moderators in Ireland led to the emergence of one of the country's greatest business success stories in recent years and Anne Heraty, 60, the woman behind international IT recruitment company CPL, was lauded as a pioneering entrepreneur.
CPL, set up by Ms Heraty in 1989, is a key third-party agent and recruiter for major companies, including Facebook.
Ms Heraty recently reaped £91 million ($128.6m) from the £281m sale of the company and has been at the forefront of Dublin's transformation into a global social media IT centre where Facebook, Google and TikTok populate the city with a cluster of moderation operations.
From growing up in the village of Ballinalee in the Irish midlands and working in her family’s grocery business, Ms Heraty went on to take a degree in mathematics and economics in Dublin. She moved on to selling photocopiers and progressed to recruitment, eventually coining the concept of a dedicated IT-focused agency and creating CPL.
She now has a lucrative property portfolio, including prestigious venues in Dublin's Merrion Square, where the handsome Georgian parade of houses features the city's plushest addresses. She has featured at business awards events and been pictured with members of the band U2.
But despite her string of successes, her firm has been caught up in controversy surrounding the treatment of Facebook moderators.
Accusations of a lack of training and support for moderators – who spend hours viewing disturbing online content – have been made in a legal case being brought against CPL and three other firms; CCC, Accenture and Majorel.
CPL says employee safety is its “top priority” and that it operates a “professional, safe and rewarding work environment”.
Staff on £23,000--a-year starting salaries hit back at the large profits made by the companies while they endure challenging working issues arising from the thousands of items of extreme content they deal with.
Legal action being taken by 30 people claims they suffered post traumatic stress syndrome as a result of their work.
Last month, two Facebook moderators in Dublin met Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s minister for enterprise, trade and employment, to raise their cases.
One of those at the meeting, Paria Mosfeghi, has been an outsourced moderator for four years and wants her work at CPL to receive the same kind of support and training that she believes is available to direct Facebook employees.
“The thing that has most bothered me in the years of doing this job is being treated as a second-class citizen,” she said.
“The people who supervise my work and do quality assurance are Facebook employees. They have real mental health [support], they have proper pay. Facebook values their work, but why doesn't it value ours?
“We want the same rights and protections as Facebook employees. The way Facebook organises this work feels discriminatory and unfair. Facebook is one of the world's richest companies yet Facebook asks us to risk our life, to come into work, and keep Facebook safe and profitable. Why can't they afford to hire us?”
Last year, her concerns were echoed by more than 200 moderators who signed an open letter to Facebook and the firms citing concerns over Covid-19 after they were told to work from the office carrying out Facebook’s “most brutal job”.
“We, the undersigned Facebook content moderators and Facebook employees, write to express our dismay at your decision to risk our lives – and the lives of our colleagues and loved ones – to maintain Facebook’s profits during the pandemic,” it said.
“After months of allowing content moderators to work from home, faced with intense pressure to keep Facebook free of hate and disinformation, you have forced us back to the office.
“Despite vast sums flowing to each of you as corporate executives, you have refused moderators hazard pay.
“Moderators working on child-abuse content had targets increased during the pandemic, with no additional support.
“Now, on top of work that is psychologically toxic, holding on to the job means walking into a hot zone. In several offices, multiple Covid-19 cases have occurred on the floor.
“Workers have asked Facebook leadership, and the leadership of your outsourcing firms like Accenture and CPL, to take urgent steps to protect us and value our work. You refused. We are publishing this letter because we are left with no choice. Stop needlessly risking moderators’ lives.”
Facebook said because of the graphic nature of some content it was not possible for moderators to view it from home.
“Review of that content is important to keep our platforms safe, so in recent months our partners have reopened to bring some content reviewers back to offices to support this work,” Facebook said.
“Our focus has always been on how this content review can be done in a way that keeps our reviewers safe. We have been working closely with all of our partners to communicate regularly with their employees and update them on the health and safety measures that are being taken so this content review can be done in a way that keeps our reviewers safe.”
The letter was also addressed to Julie Sweet, chief executive of US-based recruiter Accenture.
Accenture told The National it has been gradually inviting people to return to its offices after the pandemic, but only where there is a "critical need to do so".
“We continually review, benchmark and invest in our well-being programmes to create a supportive workplace environment,” it said.
Two other firms listed in the Facebook lawsuit are CCC and Majorel – they have not responded to The National's request for comment.
CCC was founded in Vienna in 1998 and is headed by chief executive Christian Legat. It runs moderation centres for Facebook in Barcelona and Berlin.
Luxembourg-based Majorel was formed in 2019 aftera merger and has revenues of €1.2 billion ($1.46bn). It employs more than 48,000 people in 28 countries.
Led by chief executive Thomas Mackenbrock, it is the umbrella for a number of recruitment agencies, including Arvato CRM Solutions, which moderates hate speech in Germany for Facebook.