September 21, 2023

Big Tech Under Fire: Democratic Lawmakers Probe CEOs Over AI ‘Ghost Worker’ Exploitation

Ghost Workers

Big Tech companies are being probed about the treatment of their “ghost workers” by Democratic lawmakers.

Ghost work refers to the undervalued, underpaid, and undersupported human labor utilized to develop and maintain the automation of websites and apps. This work is often outsourced, hidden, or rendered invisible by the tech companies who request it.

With the rise of generative AI, this work often includes training and improving algorithms.

According to Just Tech, ghost workers are usually vulnerable people from Asia, Latin America and Africa who are being paid less than $2 per hour to generate and label data that trains AI models.

Letter from Democratic Lawmakers

Last week, Democratic lawmakers wrote to nine of the nation’s leading companies developing and deploying AI, calling on them to answer for the working conditions of their data workers.

Signatories included Senators Bernie Sanders, Ron Wyden, and Elizabeth Warren, and Representatives Jamaal Bowman, Katie Porter, and Mark Pocan.

“Despite the essential nature of this work, millions of data workers around the world perform these stressful tasks under constant surveillance, with low wages and no benefits,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the chief executives of nine companies.

The companies included Amazon, Alphabet Inc., Meta Platforms Inc., Microsoft Corp, International Business Machines Corp, OpenAI Inc., Inflection AI, Scale AI Inc. and Anthropic.

“Tech companies have a responsibility to ensure safe and healthy working conditions, fairly compensated work, and protection from unjust disciplinary proceedings.”

“Tech companies must not build AI on the backs of exploited workers,” the Democrats wrote.

According to Stanford Social Innovation Review, Facebook refuses to reveal the number of moderators working to keep it safe, but reports suggest there are around 15,000 worldwide. 

In 2022, TechEquity Collaborative released its Contract Worker Disparity Project report, looking at various ways the technology sector relies on subcontractors and what that means for those workers.

The report found that subcontractors make 75 cents on the direct employees’ dollar, while lacking paid time off, health insurance, job security or the prospect of career advancement.

“Tech companies have a responsibility to ensure safe and healthy working conditions, fairly compensated work, and protection from unjust disciplinary proceedings…Unfortunately, many companies have sidestepped these duties, and that must change,” the lawmakers letter read.

Previous Lawsuits Against Big Tech

In March 2019, Daniel Motaung, a college graduate from South Africa, believed he was going to Kenya to work as an IT administrator for Meta’s subcontractor, Sama.

When he got there, he realized he actually had the role of a content moderator for Facebook, where he would be subjected daily to looking at disturbing images to see if they violated Facebook’s content policies.

After forming a union to protect himself and other content moderators, Sama fired him, resulting in him bringing a court case against them and Facebook.

In July of this year, 2023, a leaked internal document from TikTok revealed that the company was preparing for scrutiny over the treatment of its outsourced content moderators in Kenya.

A report found that TikTok moderators spent hours reviewing graphic videos for less than $3 an hour, including videos of child abuse and people dying of suicide. 

In March of this year, Meta was sued by content moderators in Kenya. Over 40 content moderators sued the tech giant and its subcontractors, Sama and Majorel, for “unlawful redundancy” and discriminatory hiring practices.

More recently, African content moderators voted to unionize and petitioned Kenya’s lawmakers to investigate the nature of their work.

Sara Keenan

Tech Reporter at POCIT. Following her master's degree in journalism, Sara cultivated a deep passion for writing and driving positive change for Black and Brown individuals across all areas of life. This passion expanded to include the experiences of Black and Brown people in tech thanks to her internship experience as an editorial assistant at a tech startup.