Earlier this year, Meta and his largest content moderation partner in Africa, Sama, were accused of breaking unions, forced labor and human trafficking. The lawsuit alleges that “misleading job postings” attracted potential employees from all over Africa who, once they realized the true nature of the job, often had no means of returning home. And when content moderator Daniel Motaung tried to organize his colleagues to improve working conditions and pay, Sama fired him.
A victory for Motaung, who filed the lawsuit, could force social media companies to invest in their content moderation workers, even if they are not direct employees. (In response to the lawsuit, Meta claims that they never employed Motaung and therefore “are not responsible or aware of” any of the allegations. However, Motaung argues that the moderators are employees of Meta in a sense material and legal: they use Meta’s internal systems and guidelines, work closely with Meta staff and with a work schedule established by Meta.) What has not received as much attention, however, is what the demand for Meta means. companies that seek to improve the developing world. Sama is a so-called social enterprise founded specifically to provide “decent work” to low-income people around the world. Definitions of “social enterprise” vary, but most academics and entrepreneurs agree that they seek to maximize income and profits while contributing to a social or environmental goal, typically by supporting a specific marginalized group. In Sama’s case, these are his employees, who often have little or no previous experience in the formal economy. Sama, a self-proclaimed “ethical AI” company, has been praised by Fast Company, B Corp and Forbes, among others. The fact that Sama is now accused of abusing the same workers he tried to empower reveals the fundamental breakdown of the social enterprise model.
Legal context first: The lawsuit was filed in Kenya, which has relatively weak labor protections that the government has often failed to enforce. Government workplace inspections remain rare, courts face significant delays, sanctions are often disproportionate to crime, and employers often fail to comply with court orders. For these reasons, it is rare for employees to file complaints. Even if Motaung wins his lawsuit, leading to a new set of standards for content moderation work, it is not known whether these standards will actually be implemented in Kenya.
From this perspective, the creation of a regional content moderation center in a place with such weak labor protection seems almost strategic, or at least convenient, for Meta. Aside from payroll savings, no Labor Ministry official controlled what the staff was moderating: generally very disturbing content, such as beheadings and child sexual abuse, according to Motaung. Meta’s name didn’t even have to be on the door. As a contractor hired to moderate Meta’s content in Africa, it was Sama who recruited and technically employed the workers – about 240 in his Nairobi office. The company specializes in data annotation and digital micro-work that can be done by low-income people in the developing world. In addition to content moderation, the company also offers image, video and other product annotation services for clients such as Google, Walmart and Getty Images.
Perhaps Sama’s current problems began with a fundamental change in the mission: initially founded as a non-profit “SamaSource” in 2008, the company became a for-profit social enterprise structure in 2019. Making money became as much, if not more, a priority as offering decent work. Evidence of this internal mental change can be seen in Sama’s documents: SamaSource’s first reports are filled with references to giving people “decent” work and measuring the impact in terms of life changes and workers’ communities. But it is moving rapidly toward its transformation into a for-profit entity and its subsequent brand change to “Sama,” and this focus on the impact of workers seems to have, if not disappeared, at least receded.
The company has always claimed to pay workers a “decent wage,” which usually exceeds the minimum wage and guarantees a decent standard of living to employees in a given country. Between the early and mid-2010s, Sama workers in Kenya earned $ 8 a day, roughly in line with decent wage estimates for that time period. And a randomized control study found that Sama’s training and job referral program had long-term benefits on workers ’employment and income, even after they left Sama. However, a recent TIME investigation found that Sama’s lowest workers in Nairobi earned only $ 1.50 an hour, just above Kenya’s current minimum wage of $ 1.15 for cleaners, and well below the $ 2.61 an hour the cashiers have to pay. Finding “a work culture characterized by mental trauma, intimidation, and the alleged suppression of the right to unionize,” with Sama workers among Meta’s lowest-ranking employees around the world, TIME’s research also questions the conclusions of the RCT.