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Facebook should respect the rights of all people in its supply chain

Content moderation takes a heavy toll on workers because they must watch and review incredibly violent content. [iStockphoto]

Five weeks ago, I wrote about the plight of content moderators working for Sama, a California based company subcontracted by Facebook (Meta), to do content moderation for Africa in Kenya. The story was broken in a Time magazine investigation titled 'Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop'. It alleged poor working conditions, poor pay and allegations of union-busting on content moderators whose work tackles hate speech, incitement, violence, harassment and other problematic content on Facebook.

Content moderation takes a heavy toll on workers because they must watch and review incredibly violent content such as pictures and videos of sexual abuse, self-harm, murders, suicides, assaults, child abuse, and scenes from armed conflicts.

Recently Sama has increased their Kenyan and foreign workers' salaries. For example, a Kenyan's pay rose from Sh30,000 to roughly Sh50,000. Moreover, they are now entitled to an annual bonus matching their monthly pay.

Daniel Motaung, a former Sama employee from South Africa, recently formally issued demands to both Meta and Sama seeking compensation for violations of workers' rights to privacy and association including the right to unionise, discrimination, poor working conditions and exploitation of African youth. In addition, the letter demands better medical support before, during and after employment, mental health insurance, a review of the content moderation policy and a plan of action to address all violations.

It is noteworthy that content moderators doing the same job in the USA and Europe are paid as high as Sh2,700 per hour, contrasted with the paltry Sh173 and 253 Kenyans and foreign Africans earn, respectively. According to the Time article, Motaung was fired for agitating for better pay and working conditions and attempting to register a trade union protected under the Kenya constitution. Sama has retorted by pointing out that its salaries were significantly higher than the Sh15,000 Kenyan minimum wage. They add that their workers are provided with medical cover, a pension, and skills for development.

Corporations have been under pressure to ensure that their supply chains are free from violations and exploitation since the 1990s anti-sweatshop movement. Then, it exposed the exploitation of textile factory workers in developing countries that fuelled spectacular profits for first-world multinationals.

Because firms outsource and subcontract and have different facilities in different counties with many suppliers, they may not be in control of everything at every stage. Thus they can feign ignorance of violations or illegalities in the different stages in their supply chain. In addition, they can look the other way as violations occur in far-flung areas where laws are weak, the workforce is desperate, and leadership is compromised.

The initial solution to the problem was through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes that relied on corporate self-regulation where firms themselves accountable to the public, shareholders, and stakeholders. However, this did not go far enough to compel the eradication of violations.

The 2011 United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights Framework obligates states to protect against human rights abuses by business enterprises that are bound to respect human rights even if the government fails to protect them.

The protection part is done through laws, regulations, and judicial mechanisms, which Motaung threatens to activate through court action. CSR to respect human rights requires Facebook/Meta to do meaningful human rights due diligence at every level of their supply chain, including sub-contractors.

It will be interesting to see how Facebook/Meta and Sama respond to Motaung's demands.