Facebook sued in Kenya over work conditions for moderators

Parent company Meta and outsourcing company Sama face legal action

Lawyer Mercy Mutemi, who is representing a former content moderator, has launched legal action against Meta in Kenya.  Reuters

A former Facebook moderator has launched legal action against Meta, the social media platform's parent company, and outsourcing company Sama over working conditions in Kenya.

Daniel Motaung says he has been left "destroyed" after working as a content moderator for the social media company and has accused it of trafficking Africans to work in an exploitative and unsafe facility in Kenya.

The case against Meta and Sama, a San Francisco subcontractor, was lodged on Tuesday with a court in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

London-based legal firm Foxglove, which has been representing Facebook employees globally, describes its Kenyan operation as "dangerous".

"Former Facebook content moderator and whistleblower Daniel Motaung has formally launched his world-first legal action, to force Facebook to treat their content moderators fairly," Foxglove said.

"His case aims to hold Facebook ― and their outsourcing company Sama ― accountable for their exploitation and union-busting of Facebook content moderators in Kenya.

"If he succeeds, Daniel’s legal action will send ripples across the world. He would have persuaded the courts in Kenya to force Facebook to finally clean up its factory floor. It would be a massive blow to a business model based on sacrificing the mental health of content moderators.

Facebook's Meta is being sued by a content moderator in Kenya.  Reuters

"[Mr Motaung's petition] calls upon Kenya’s courts to order Facebook and its outsourcing companies to end exploitation in its Nairobi moderation hub, where content moderators work in dangerous conditions."

Mr Motaung claims that the first video he was asked to view in his role was of someone being beheaded.

He said he worked as a moderator for six month before allegedly being dismissed, he described his job as "traumatising".

“I had potential,” Mr Motaung said.

“When I went to Kenya, I went to Kenya because I wanted to change my life. I wanted to change the life of my family. I came out a different person, a person who has been destroyed.”

Mr Motaung says he was told to sign a non-disclosure agreement and his pay was less than promised, with one monthly paycheque that was 40,000 Kenyan shillings, about $350 dollars.

The lawsuit accuses Sama of targeting people from poor families across Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda and other countries in the region with “misleading job ads” that fail to disclose that they will be working as Facebook content moderators or viewing disturbing content.

Applicants are recruited “through deceit”, said his legal adviser Mercy Mutemi, who filed the petition in court on Tuesday.

“We found a lot of Africans were forced into forced labour situations and human trafficking. When you leave your country for a job that you didn’t apply for, that amounts to human trafficking."

She described Mr Motaung as being very "brave".

The court papers allege that content moderators are not given enough medical cover to seek treatment for mental health issues.

Meta's office in Nairobi said it takes seriously its responsibility to people who review content for the company and requires its “partners to provide industry-leading pay, benefits and support”, according to a statement issued by the company's spokeswoman.

”We also encourage content reviewers to raise issues when they become aware of them and regularly conduct independent audits to ensure our partners are meeting the high standards we expect of them," the statement said.

Sama, which describes itself as an ethical AI company, has not responded.

Sama's Nairobi location is the largest content moderation facility in Africa, with approximately 240 employees working there, according to the court papers.

“We are not animals,” Mr Motaung said in the statement.

"We are people — and we deserve to be treated as such.

“It is not OK that we can be subjected to exploitation by huge corporate companies for profit. They come here and say that they are going to save us, only to exploit us and throw us away. I want to achieve an end to that.”

In 2020, Facebook agreed to pay $52 million to US content moderators who filed a class action lawsuit after they were repeatedly exposed to beheadings, child and sexual abuse, animal cruelty, terrorism and other disturbing content.

The company is presently facing legal action from its European employees.

Updated: May 11, 2022, 12:01 PM