May 4, 2023

ChatGPT, Facebook, And TikTok’s African Content Moderators Have Unionized

In a watershed moment for the global tech industry, more than 150 African content moderators—who have provided moderation services for AI tools used by Facebook, TikTok, and ChatGPT—have voted to unionize, TIME reports.

At an event in Nairobi this week, content moderators employed by third-party outsourcing companies voted to establish the first African Content Moderators Union.

A long time coming

The union’s establishment is the culmination of a process that began in 2019 when former Facebook content moderator Daniel Motaung was fired after attempting to unionize workers at the outsourcing company Sama. Motaung’s legal case against Meta and Sama exposed the horrific circumstances facing content moderators.

A second suit was filed against Meta in December 2022, this time by Ethiopians who accused Meta of failing to swiftly remove Facebook content that incited the deaths of 500,000 Ethiopians during the Tigray War.

Then in January, a TIME investigation exposed the horrendous conditions many Kenyan Sama employees had been subject to while moderating content from OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT. Moderators received $1.32 to $2 an hour to sift through harmful content which left some workers ‘mentally scarred’.

And in March, content moderators filed a lawsuit accusing Meta, Sama and a second subcontractor, Majorel, of union-busting operation masquerading as a mass redundancy. Meta’s application to have the case thrown out was dismissed.

An important milestone

The establishment of the Content Moderators Union is an important milestone for content moderators across the tech industry.

James Oyange, a former TikTok content moderator at Majorel, who has taken a leadership role in organizing his former colleagues, said: “People should know that it isn’t just Meta – at every social media firm, there are workers who have been brutalized and exploited.”

Read: TikTok’s African Moderators Are Calling Out The Platform For Its Cruel Treatment

“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.”

“For too long, we, the workers powering the AI revolution, were treated as different and less than moderators,” added Richard Mathenge, a former Sama employee who moderated ChatGPT content.

“Our work is just as important, and it is also dangerous. We took a historic step today. The way is long, but we are determined to fight on so that people are not abused the way we were.”

Samara Linton

Community Manager at POCIT | Co-editor of The Colour of Madness: Mental Health and Race in Technicolour (2022), and co-author of Diane Abbott: The Authorised Biography (2020)