Meta Accused Of Human Trafficking and Union-Busting in Kenya

Facebook’s parent company, Meta Platforms, and its largest outsourcing partner in Africa are facing new allegations of forced labor, human trafficking, and union busting in Kenya.

Daniel Motaung, a former outsourced Facebook content moderator, filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Nairobi accusing Meta and outsourcing firm Sama of multiple violations of the Kenyan constitution. The lawsuit follows a TIME story published in February titled “Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop,” in which Motaung and other current and former employees at Sama first gave their accounts of widespread trauma, pay as low as $1.50 per hour, and alleged union busting.

Sama, which describes itself as an “ethical AI” company, fired Motaung in 2019 after he led more than 100 of his Facebook content-moderator colleagues in an attempt to unionize for better pay and working conditions. His dismissal letter said his actions put Sama’s relationship with Facebook “at great risk.”

On the job, for around $2.20 per hour, Motaung says he witnessed disturbing content including violent beheadings and the sexual abuse of children. He now regularly experiences flashbacks and nightmares, and says the requirement to watch videos of innocent people being kidnapped and murdered has left him with severe anxiety in public spaces—and difficulty finding another job. He remains unemployed and was recently diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a diagnosis shared by many of his former colleagues.

Read More: Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop

“It is not OK that we can be subjected to exploitation by huge corporate companies for profit,” Motaung said in a phone interview on Monday from his home in South Africa. “They come here and say that they are going to save us, only to exploit us and throw us away. I want to achieve an end to that.”

Sama has said Motaung was fired for the legitimate reason of bullying and coercing his colleagues.

About the lawsuit

The civil lawsuit filed Tuesday is the first of its kind, Motaung’s lawyers say, because it seeks not only compensation but also widespread reforms that could force Facebook to change its content moderation practices globally. The lawsuit accuses Meta and Sama (formerly known as Samasource) of multiple violations of the Kenyan constitution.

“We can’t have safe social media if the workers who protect us toil in a digital sweatshop,” said Cori Crider, the director of the London-based legal NGO Foxglove, which is representing Motaung alongside the Kenyan law firm Nzili and Sumbi Advocates, in a statement. “We’re hoping this case will send ripples across the continent—and the world. The Sama Nairobi office is Facebook’s moderation hub for much of East and South Africa. Reforming Facebook’s factory floor here won’t just affect these workers, but should improve the experience of Facebook users in Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, and other African countries.”

“We also hope Daniel’s case will send Facebook a clear message: the days when you can get away with treating your content moderators as disposable and scaring them out of speaking are over,” Crider added. “Any reform we win here, Facebook can afford to roll out everywhere—and we’ll be pushing to make that happen. It’s past time for Facebook to treat these people with dignity and respect.”

Sama has previously denied union-busting and exploitation, and Meta has previously said that it requires its outsourcing partners to provide “industry-leading pay, benefits and support.” Sama spokesperson Suzin Wold and Meta spokesperson Ben Walters said Monday that their companies could not comment on specific claims until they had each seen a copy of the lawsuit.

Allegations of human trafficking

In perhaps its most explosive allegation, the lawsuit argues that Sama and Meta engaged in forced labor by placing “misleading job ads” that failed to inform applicants that they would be working as Facebook content moderators, nor warn them that they would view disturbing content that could result in trauma—alleged practices that were first reported by TIME.

The lawsuit argues that this amounted to human trafficking in the cases of the dozens of employees flown to Kenya by Sama, allegedly under false pretenses, from elsewhere in Africa.

“These misleading ads were targeted deliberately at Kenyans and Africans from disadvantaged backgrounds who, after being tricked into a job they had not realized they had applied for, were trapped in a dangerous job without a safety net,” said Motaung’s lawyers in a statement. (In its responses to TIME in February, Sama said it had updated its onboarding policies since the events described in the story “to be more transparent about what to expect,” and that its employees apply and work of their own free will.)

The suit alleges a raft of other violations of Kenyan law, including wage theft, racial discrimination, psychological torture, unequal pay for equal work, and negligence by failing to provide adequate psychosocial support. Meta and Sama are alleged to have violated Kenyan constitutional protections to freedom of association, freedom of expression, dignity, privacy, fair remuneration, and reasonable working conditions.

Read More: Facebook Content Moderators in Kenya to Receive Pay Rise Following TIME Investigation

Meta is seeking to have its name struck from the case. In a letter dated April 21, its lawyers said the company was “not liable for or privy to” any of the allegations made by Motaung’s lawyers in a March letter. Meta’s lawyers said that Motaung was employed by Sama, not Meta, and that “No action can therefore be brought against Meta for any rights and/or obligations allegedly due and owing to the Claimant with respect to his employment with Sama, as Meta was not and has never been his employer.”

Motaung’s lawyers say their client will argue in response that Sama is an “agent” of Meta, because Sama employees use Facebook’s own internal systems, work in close cooperation with its staff, to a schedule of work set by Meta. They will argue that Meta contracts Sama to carry out unsavory tasks that would otherwise need to be done in-house at Meta. “The environment created by [Sama] and [Meta] is demanding and stress-inducing as it involves intense surveillance, stringent performance metrics to meet volume and accuracy goals, extreme time pressure [and] limited recovery time, all of which could heighten psychological stress,” the lawsuit reads. “This extremely pressurized environment compounds the effects of repeated exposure to toxic content.”

Sama’s lawyers, in a letter dated April 20, denied the allegations against the company outlined in the March letter. “Our client is committed to ensuring that its employees are not only treated in accordance with applicable law, including freedom of association, but that they are treated fairly and responsibly,” their letter said. “This includes providing a full suite of support and benefits to our employees.”

Forcing a change

The lawsuit requests unspecified compensation, to be set by the court, from Meta and Sama for all current and former content moderators at Sama.

Among the lawsuit’s many other demands are for all Facebook’s outsourced content moderators to receive the same psychological protections and care as full Facebook employees. It also asks the courts to ensure Sama and Meta publicly affirm all moderators’ right to unionize and speak publicly; and for all outsourced content moderators to receive a pay increase amounting to a similar wage to Facebook’s in-house content moderation specialists. It requests that Kenyan authorities strip Sama of an export license that confers tax breaks upon the company.

The suit asks that Sama undergo an independent human rights audit, and then make monthly reports to the court on the status of its implementation of the measures requested by the auditor. “We’re pushing for them to fix the system,” says Mercy Mutemi of Nzili and Sumbi Advocates, the Kenyan law firm representing Motaung. “We want a monitored, structural change.”

Motaung, who has a six-month old daughter, says he first joined Sama “on a mission to lift myself and my family out of poverty.” Now, suffering from PTSD, he says he fears his mission will never be completed. “It has interfered with my attempts to progress in life.”

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Write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com.