Facebook case shows role of trade unions

Facebook logo displayed on a phone screen. [Getty Images]

The world of work, over the years, has evolved due to internet usage and, recently, the Covid-19 pandemic. In essence, the latter has reduced the world into a global village with work being adversely affected.

The former has, arguably, changed the definition of work by making employers rethink various modes of work due to safety concerns. And with the changes in the world of work, especially with the disruptions by various supply chains and mobility as a result of various trade deals, young people continue being the beneficiary of the good and the bad of the changes.

Indeed, opportunities for employment are scarce and many youth are increasingly forced to accept employment that do not meet international labour standards. For instance, contractual employment have become the order of the day whereby the workers do not only have job security due to violation of their labour rights, but also miss out of social security in many cases. 

Workers under this the gig economy are intentionally not considered employees, and as such, are denied universal workers’ benefits and many other rights. Sadly, the private sector, non-governmental organisations and even the United Nations are engaging more and more workers through this system, for example through so-called annual contracts that actually account for less than 11 months.  And Kenya is no different.

Take for instance the case of a young South African at the beginning of his adult life. He comes from a poor family but is intelligent and driven. Degree in hand, he embarks on the search to find financial freedom via a series of online applications. The perfect opportunity presents itself: a tech company offers him an administrative job that requires a “Zulu Speaker”. Although the details were vague, as far as he can tell, it would involve administration and some analysis work, and the company would pay travel and relocation costs equivalent to a month’s salary, to get to his new duty station in Nairobi.

After signing a contract amounting to Sh60,000 per month with a medical scheme with outpatient benefits of Sh50,000 and inpatient benefits of Sh500,000 for self per year, he realises that true nature of his job would entail something known as “content moderation” for Facebook.

This shocking new detail is only revealed upon signing an elaborate Non-Disclosure Agreement, banning him from talking about it, and is only the tip of the iceberg in what else is wrong with this seemingly great economic opportunity. Our immigrant worker is briefly shown how to use Facebook’s tools, used to assess whether content posted by one of its three billion users violates its policies and needs to be removed. After that, he begins work using the tools to try and scrub the newsfeeds clean.

Roughly 130,000 images are posted onto the platform every minute. From beheadings to sexual exploitation of children, his working life is now characterised by seemingly endless hours of graphic, horrific and violent images and audio-visual content. In the next days and months, he and his colleagues – some Kenyan, but mostly other African foreigners – are fed a daily diet of the very worst material on the internet.

The story I have told you is in fact that a young man named Daniel Motaung. Mr. Motaung was last week named as one of the world’s top 100 personalities shaping the future by the prestigious Time Magazine. This honour was for his role in championing unionizing rights for African content moderators, majority of whom are based in Kenya. 

A constitutional case in Kenya’s Employment and Labour Relations Court is set to hear and determine Mr. Motaung’s case next month.

Benson Okwaro is the Deputy Secretary General at COTU (Kenya)