A mass summit of over 150 content moderators working on the world’s biggest and fastest-growing apps – Facebook, TikTok, and ChatGPT – convened this Labour Day and formally resolved to register the Content Moderators Union.
This group, thought to be largest gathering of content moderators ever to take place, has taken the first formal step required to form a trade union. Today’s grouping will create the first such union in Africa and has declared it will welcome content moderators from any major tech firm.
A history of organising interrupted – until now
The move builds on earlier efforts by Facebook moderators that were crushed by company bosses. In 2019, a moderator called Daniel Motaung and over 100 colleagues at Facebook’s Nairobi moderation hub, outsourced to Sama, started the Alliance, a group who tried to negotiate over unfair conditions like pay and mental health care. Facebook and Sama ignored the group’s demands, the nascent union was destroyed, and Daniel, its leader, was forced to leave Kenya.
The tables turned in 2022, when a Time magazine exposé lifted the lid on exploitation of African Facebook moderators at Sama Nairobi. This kicked off a wave of legal action and organising that has culminated in two judgments against Meta and planted the seeds for today’s mass worker summit.
Legal action – the seeds of the Content Moderators Union
The first case against Meta, a Constitutional filed by Motaung in spring 2022, charges Meta and Sama with exploitation, union-busting and wage theft and seeks reforms to Facebook’s factory floor. A second $2bn case, filed December 2022, connects this worker exploitation to real-life harm, alleging that Facebook’s moderation failures – and viral design – have caused death and mayhem in the Ethiopian war and across the African continent.
Facebook and its outsourcers then retaliated, announcing in January a mass sacking of all 260 moderators at Facebook’s Nairobi hub. A third case filed in March, with 184 petitioners, has successfully blocked this mass firing on the basis it is tantamount to intimidation and union-busting. Two Nairobi judges have ruled that Facebook can be sued in the Kenyan courts over the labour allegations.
Atop this rising tide, moderators from all four tech giants convened to share experiences and goals and form a united front against exploitation and abuse.
Daniel Motaung, union organiser and petitioner in the first Meta case, said “I never thought, when I started the Alliance in 2019, we would be here today – with moderators from every major social media giant forming the first African moderators union. There have never been more of us. Our cause is right, our way is just, and we shall prevail. I couldn’t be more proud of today’s decision to register the Content Moderators Union.”
Kauna Malgwi, a Facebook moderator working at Sama, said “We know our worth. Social media does not exist without us. By coming together today we feel something powerful: hope. Sama and Facebook thought they could get rid of us because we spoke up – but they only made us resolve to fight. Withholding our pay and threatening people’s immigration status doesn’t just show contempt of Kenyan justice – it disrespects us. But we won’t take it lying down. We will not rest until justice is done.”
James Oyange, a former TikTok moderator working with Majorel and worker organiser, said “Seeing so many people together today was incredible. People should know that it isn’t just Meta – at every social media firm there are workers who have been brutalised and exploited. But today I feel bold, seeing so many of us resolve to make change. The companies should listen – but if they won’t, we’ll make them. And we hope Kenyan lawmakers and society will ally with us to transform this work.”
Richard Mathenge, former ChatGPT moderator and worker organiser, said “For too long we, the workers powering the AI revolution, were treated as different and less than moderators. Our work is just as important and it is also dangerous. We took an historic step today. The way is long but we are determined to fight on so that people are not abused the way we were.”
Martha Dark, a Director at Foxglove, who helped organise the summit, said “It takes a village to solve a problem, but today the Kenyan moderators formed an army. From TikTok to Facebook, these people face the same issues. Toxic content, no mental health care, precarious work – these are systemic failures in content moderation. So we’re especially proud to see such a huge cross-company group come together to say: enough. The forthcoming Content Moderators Union made history today – and they are just getting started. We hope their example inspires their colleagues doing similar work.”
Mercy Mutemi of Nzili and Sumbi Advocates, counsel to moderators and legal advisor, said “Moderators have faced unbelievable intimidation in trying to exercise their basic right to associate. Today they have made a powerful statement: their work is to be celebrated. They will live in fear no longer. Moderators are proud of their work, and we stand ready to offer the necessary support as they register the trade union and bargain for fair conditions.”