By Mukanzi Musanga / openDemocracy
Trigger warning: Contains references to suicide ideation
Facebook workers in Kenya engaged in a legal battle with Meta and its outsourcing company over mass redundancies have accused the tech firms of contempt of court, saying they haven’t been paid for six months.
Both Facebook and its contractor, Samasource Kenya EPZ – known as Sama – are accused of failing to comply with a court order that banned them from laying off the workers before their legal challenge had been heard.
Out-of-court negotiations regarding the redundancies collapsed last week when the 156 content moderators involved dismissed an offer, saying it wouldn’t even cover the mental health care they need as a result of both their jobs and their ordeal.
The workers, who remain legally employed by Sama and Meta, say they are unable to afford food and rent, and have resorted to an online crowdfunding campaign to make ends meet.
The Employment and Labour Relations Court issued an injunction in March blocking the two tech firms from firing an entire workforce of 260 moderators. It came after 43 employees filed a lawsuit against Facebook for unlawful mass layoffs and blacklisting. The lawsuit argues that the redundancy and blacklisting is a retaliatory tactic against the moderators for unionising.
The out-of-court negotiations began in August and were presided over by retired Supreme Court chief justice Willy Mutunga. The process was expected to take three weeks but went on until mid-October.
Lawyer Mercy Mutemi, representing the workers, said in court that Meta frustrated the mediation process by “asking for an extension of time” and failed to be forthright.
“They kept saying they would get back to us by a certain date but only got back to us at the end of last week with a very small amount that cannot even take care of the petitioners’ mental health,” she stated.
Speaking on the final day of the mediation, Justice Nduma Nderi, the judge who issued the interim order in March, told Meta to seriously reconsider how it positions itself in Kenya and “operates here – today and in the future”.
“Opportunities will be missed if you don’t have proper policies in place to attract investment and to create a decent employment environment for the people here,” Nderi said.
Sama’s vice president of global service delivery, Annepeace Alwala, contests moderators’ claims that they have not been paid and says the company has complied with the court order. She said the order did not stop Sama’s contract with Facebook expiring and therefore it is not required to keep paying the workers whose contracts ended at that time. She said any employee whose contract has not expired is still being paid.
Alwala told openDemocracy the court had prohibited all parties involved in the case from speaking to the media.
Meta did not respond to requests for comment.
One of the content moderators is Ugandan Edward Lubega, who has been struggling to make ends meet. Earlier this month, he was locked out of his flat by his landlord for failing to pay rent.
He regrets accepting the job offer at Sama, saying he believed he would be working as a Luganda speaking call centre agent. He says content moderation work has severely impacted his mental health, which has been exacerbated by the lack of income after losing his job.
“The truth is that I have lost so much because of my job as a content moderator and no amount of money can ever make up for the damage it has had on my life and health,” he said. “But the money we were offered could not even sustain us. It’s less than the six months salary that we are owed by Sama.”
Lubega told openDemocracy he was pushed to the brink of suicide in June. He opened up to his colleagues who were concerned about him and advised him to seek professional help.
“The doctor said that I needed inpatient care but I did not have the money,” Lubega said.
Lubega said he has trouble sleeping and his life feels empty, and that he “has lost the sense of exuberance” he had before he came to Kenya in 2019.
The day before he attempted to take his own life, Lubega, as if in a trance, left his house after midnight and walked for hours without a particular destination in mind. He drifted farther away from his neighbourhood and only came to when his skin finally registered the sting of the chilly early morning.
“I have a seven-year-old daughter in Kampala and I have been unable to take care of her for the last six months. I’m even scared of calling her because I feel like I have failed her as a father,” he said.
Lubega says when he gets paid he will seek mental healthcare.
Some of his former colleagues were forced to go back to their home countries because they were being thrown out of their apartments in Nairobi. For others, the struggle of not having an income was so unbearable they took a payout from Sama on the condition they drop out of the lawsuit.
Benson Okwaro, the deputy general secretary of Kenya’s national trade union, the Central Organisation Trade Union (COTU), criticised the court, saying “the justice institution has not been very useful to the workers”.
“It’s very unfortunate that people are suffering in this country when labour laws are very clear. A court order can be issued but the enforcement of that order is also critical,” Okwaro told openDemocracy.
Okwaro, who is also the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union of Kenya (COWU), COTU’s affiliate union for communication and telecommunication workers, added: “About 80% of the moderators are not Kenyan and to live here from March without any livelihood is very unfortunate. I don’t know how they’re surviving.”
Okwaro said it’s absurd that “the company still operates in this country without paying its employees after disobeying a court order, and carries on like business as usual”.
Ochiel Dudley, an advocate for Katiba Institute, a constitutional research and litigation institute, told openDemocracy courts in Kenya are usually very strict when it comes to orders being followed.
“The court will stop all business to ensure compliance with the order it has made,” Dudley explained. “If the court finds the order was violated then it can and often does punish by fine or jail term.”
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Meta was additionally barred from contracting Majorel, which moderates content for TikTok in Nairobi, or any other firm, as its new outsourcer. But it defied the order and went on to strike a deal with Majorel.
Daniel Motaung, a former Facebook content moderator and whistleblower who is part of another legal case against Facebook over allegations of forced labour, human trafficking and union busting, says it is “typical of international corporate companies to disregard” laws in the continent.
“They come to us and offer us mediocre pay and poor working conditions and claim that what they are offering is better because we had nothing, but in the end they leave us with nothing but depression and a potential window to death,” he told openDemocracy.
According to Motaung, the two companies treated the workers like “pieces of meat – a means to an end [that being excessive profits] irrespective of how unjust and unethical these so-called means are”.
Motaung’s sentiments were echoed by Martha Dark, a director at Foxglove Legal, a UK-based tech justice non-profit supporting the case. In a statement, Dark said the failure of the settlement process exposed Meta’s “arrogance and contempt for Kenyan justice” and its indifference to the “urgent needs of their safety workers”.
Amid Meta’s legal troubles, Foxglove said the conglomerate has discreetly withdrawn its business from Majorel and contracted an unknown company to moderate Facebook’s content.
Meanwhile, the Kenyan government, led by the president, has been on a relentless charm offensive aimed at luring foreign tech firms to invest in the country’s budding tech and innovation sector.
In his speech at the US-Kenya Business Roadshow last month in San Francisco, president William Ruto pitched Kenya as Africa’s vibrant nest for business process outsourcing (BPO) to top American tech companies.
But Okwaro said the administration is doing a poor job at protecting tech workers from exploitation. He said the government, through the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, must ensure tech companies approaching the East African country for business adhere to labour laws and respect workers’ rights.
“Workers in Kenya, whether foreign or not, must be accorded their rights as enshrined in the constitution of this country and the international labour laws,” said the COTU deputy general secretary.
Mukanzi is a journalist and feature writer based in Nairobi, Kenya and was openDemocracy’s Africa investigative reporting fellow. She has a keen interest in issues surrounding human rights, inequality, reproductive health, gender, sexuality, race, class and power structures in Africa, and the continent’s connection to the rest of the world. She has previously written on health, gender, arts and culture as well as travel. Follow her on Twitter (@mukanzi_musanga) and email her at: email@example.com