Meta and Sama, its main subcontractor for content moderation in Africa, face a lawsuit in Kenya over alleged unsafe and unfair working conditions if they fail to meet 12 demands on workplace conditions brought before them. Nzili and Sumbi Advocates, the law firm representing Daniel Motaung, a former Sama employee who was laid off for organizing a strike in 2019 over poor working conditions and pay, in a demand letter, accused the subcontractor of violating various rights, including that of health and privacy of Kenyan and international staff.
“Facebook subcontracts most of this work to companies like Sama – a practice that keeps Facebook’s profit margins high but at the cost of thousands of moderators’ health – and the safety of Facebook worldwide. Sama moderators report ongoing violations, including conditions which are unsafe, degrading, and pose a risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” Motuang’s lawyers said.
In a post published after the exposé, Sama denied any wrongdoing stating that it is transparent during its hiring process and has a culture that “prioritizes employee health and wellness. “We understand that content moderation is a difficult but essential job to ensure the safety of the internet for everyone, and it’s why we invest heavily in training, personal development, and wellness programs,” said Sama.
Sama employees are said to toil day and night, working as outsourced Facebook content moderators: the emergency first responders of social media. They perform the gruelling task of viewing and removing illegal or banned content from Facebook before the average user sees it.
Since 2019, this Nairobi office block has been the epicentre of Facebook’s content moderation operation for Sub-Saharan Africa. Its remit includes Ethiopia, where Facebook is trying to prevent content on its platform from contributing to incitement to violence in an escalating civil war.
Despite their importance to Facebook, the workers in this Nairobi office are among the lowest-paid workers for the platform anywhere globally, with some of them taking home as little as $1.50 per hour. The testimonies of Sama employees reveal a workplace culture characterized by mental trauma, intimidation, and alleged suppression of the right to unionize. The revelations raise serious questions about whether Facebook—which periodically sends its employees to Nairobi to monitor Sama’s operations—exploits the people it depends on to ensure its platform is safe in Ethiopia and across the continent. And just as Facebook needs them most, content moderators at Sama are leaving the company in droves due to poor pay and working conditions, with six Ethiopians resigning in a single week in January.
“The work we do is a kind of mental torture,” one employee, who currently works as a Facebook content moderator for Sama, said. “Whatever I am living on is hand-to-mouth. I can’t save a cent. Sometimes I feel I want to resign. But then I ask myself: what will my baby eat?”
At least two Sama content moderators chose to resign after being diagnosed with mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. Many others described how they had been traumatized by the work but could not obtain formal diagnoses due to their inability to afford access to quality mental healthcare. Some described continuing with work despite trauma because they had no other options. While Sama employs wellness counsellors to provide workers with on-site care in Nairobi, most of the content moderators said they generally distrust them. One former wellness counsellor says that Sama managers regularly rejected counsellors’ requests to let content moderators take “wellness breaks” during the day because of its impact on productivity.
Workers say Sama has also suppressed their efforts to secure better working conditions. In the summer of 2019, content moderators threatened to strike within seven days unless they were given better pay and working conditions. Instead of negotiating, Sama responded by flying two highly-paid executives from San Francisco to Nairobi to deal with the uprising. Within weeks Daniel Motaung, the attempted strike’s leader who was formally filing trade union papers, had been fired—accused by Sama of taking action that would put the relationship between the company and Facebook at “great risk.” Sama told other participants in the labour action effort that they were expendable and said they should resign or get back to work. The workers stood down before the seven days, and there was no pay increase.
Facebook says it spent more than $5 billion on safety measures in 2021. It contracts the services of more than 15,000 content moderators globally, most of whom are employed by third parties like Sama. In response to a detailed set of questions for this story, a spokesperson for Facebook’s parent company Meta said: “We take our responsibility to the people who review content for Meta seriously and require our partners to provide industry-leading pay, benefits and support. We also encourage content reviewers to raise issues when they become aware of them and regularly conduct independent audits to ensure our partners meet the high standards we expect.”
Elsewhere in the world, similar working conditions have landed Facebook in hot water. In 2020, the social network paid $52 million to fund mental health treatment for some of its American content moderators following a lawsuit centred on mental ill-health stemming from their work, including PTSD. In the U.S. and Europe, many Facebook content moderators employed by the outsourcing firm Accenture are now asked to sign a waiver before they begin their jobs, acknowledging that they may develop PTSD and other mental health disorders. African content moderators working for Sama say they are not asked to sign such a waiver. (