Who Can Stop US Tech Companies From Exploiting African Labor?

Jatani Hussein / May 22, 2024

Max Gruber / Better Images of AI / Clickworker Abyss / CC-BY 4.0

It’s been over a year since my last day as a content moderator for Facebook and Instagram in Nairobi, Kenya. But I still struggle to sleep without nightmares.

From 7 a.m. each day, I reviewed between 500 and 1,000 Instagram and Facebook posts reported for violating the platform’s rules. About 80 percent of what I saw was graphic abuse, hate, and violence. My job was to watch the video, decide which of Facebook’s community standards it violates, and then try to forget it.

It’s unbelievable what people are capable of doing to each other. I would think of my children and of my parents to remind myself that I was keeping them safe from what I saw.

My family were refugees. We crossed the border from Ethiopia to Kenya when I was three years old to escape the conflict. I got my job because Facebook needed Oromo speakers for Facebook and Instagram. When I sat down at my workstation on my first day, I came face to face with the violence my family had fled.

On several occasions, I watched as people in my hometown begged for mercy in Oromo as others, speaking Amharic, slaughtered them. Similar scenes played across my screen from all over Ethiopia—video after video after video.

In my home country, we were killing each other. But in that big glass building, we sat next to each other – Oromo, Amhara, Tigrayan – and scrubbed the worst of the war off the internet as the violence escalated to take up all workdays. Other workers in the office faced similar trauma from content emerging from other conflict zones.

Our office, computers, desks, and chairs were all furnished by an outsourcing company from San Francisco called Sama. But all the work that we did was for Facebook’s owner, Meta. This work messes with your mind and mental health. We tried to be there for each other. We constantly reminded one another that we were protecting our communities from the harm this content does. But to protect them, we had to be harmed ourselves.

We learned to support each other, and we continued to do so after the day last January when we were all made "redundant."

Except our jobs hadn’t disappeared. They had just been shifted to another contractor called Majorel. As hard as the work is, we need the jobs, so we tried to apply. We were all rejected.

It became clear that we had been blacklisted, probably because we were organizing to negotiate for better mental health care. So hundreds of us filed a suit against Sama and Meta in Kenya, arguing that both companies had broken Kenya’s labor laws when they fired us. And we won!

The judge ruled Meta was our "true employer" and ordered the company to pay us back wages and provide us with psychological and medical care. At first, I was relieved that the law was on our side. However, I have since realized that some things are more powerful even than the law.

It has been over a year since that first court order. More legal victories have followed, but Meta simply ignores them. The Kenyan government hasn’t supported us either. Kenyan President William Ruto and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Sama’s new Nairobi headquarters. The war rages on, and my coworkers and I have scattered across the continent, waiting to be paid.

On May 23, Ruto will become the first African leader in almost two decades to make a formal state visit to the White House. As they discuss the future of trade between Kenya and the U.S., I hope they will consider the working people who are put at risk when U.S. companies are allowed to exploit African labor and break local labor laws without consequence.

Meta broke the law. I’m irritable and anxious, and I still have trouble sleeping after the trauma I endured working for them. Many of my former coworkers and I have formed a union with other content moderators for companies like Meta, TikTok, and ChatGPT, so these powerful companies can’t continue to use us up and spit us out. The law is on our side, but it is only the Kenyan law, and Meta seems to believe they exist somewhere above it. Who will tell them otherwise?

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Jatani Hussein
Jatani Hussein is a Facebook content moderator who worked at Meta's content moderation hub in Nairobi, Kenya. He is originally from Ethiopia.