Subcontractors Revolt in India and Kenya

Amazon Labor Workers

          New Orleans      Facebook or Meta, whatever you want to call it, and Amazon are slippery employers.  For all of their hundreds of thousands of direct employees, they almost have as many contract workers on the cheap, either doing jobs that expose the companies to liabilities or where they can simply scrimp on pay. This problem is global and baked into the business model of these giant tech outfits and the other just like them.  Although they have largely avoided accountability in the United States, they may be getting their comeuppance in Kenya in and in India, where subcontractors have taken direct action.

Near Delhi, Amazon announced a warehouse closing and terminated hundreds of subcontracted workers staffing the plant with little notice and no severance.  ACORN supported the discharged workers in more than two weeks of daily rallies at the plant gate demanding severance pay and notice penalties as allowed under India’s labor code, or what remains of it still after Modi and BJP revisions.  Despite being subcontractors and not directly employed, the workers won a huge victory when Amazon agreed to pay them severance, setting a precedent in India, and perhaps elsewhere, and proving that direct action works.

In Kenya, 183 Meta moderation workers, which is a euphemism for workers paid to view and then remove gross, violent, and disturbing content from Facebook and Instagram postings, were employed by Sama, a California-based company.  Reportedly, Sama decided to exit the business and get rid of its Kenya-based moderators.  They came together and sued Sama and Meta in the labor courts which approved the inclusion of Meta as a codefendant.  The workers have accused the company of exploitation, including mental health damages which were not adequately addressed by the company, and unfair termination.  Meta is appealing the decision to hold its feet to the fire as a co-employer of these workers, but experts believe if the Kenya workers are successful, it risks the whole tech global outsourcing to “armies of workers in low-cost labor markets.”  Another lawsuit in Kenya before the High Court alleges that the moderation employed by Meta was inadequate to address ethnic hate speech.

Of course, it’s more complicated than this and seems to point to Meta-enabled union busting that led Sama to shut its moderation program down in Kenya and now blacklisting through its new subcontractor, also using Kenya workers.

A few months after Sama began doing content moderation for Facebook, one of Sama’s employees working on Meta content moderation, South African citizen Daniel Motaung, says he began organizing around 150 colleagues to protest their working conditions and demand better pay. Motaung says he was in the process of formally filing trade-union papers when he was fired.

In May 2022, he filed a lawsuit against Sama and Meta in the Nairobi Employment and Labour Relations Court, alleging worker abuse, exploitation, union-busting and unlawful termination.

Content moderators who are suing Sama recently demonstrated outside the Meta contractor’s offices in Nairobi. Photo: daniel irungu/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Sama says Motaung was fired for causes unrelated to his attempts to unionize and that the company would have worked with a union, had one formed. It accused him of coercing fellow employees and excluding others based on nationality. Motaung’s lawyers deny those allegations. Meta declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

So far, the Kenya court has already ruled that the companies have to keep paying the moderators until the end of their employment contracts while the appeals and process plays out.  It looks like workers in India, Kenya, and elsewhere around the world are pointing the direction for tech workers and their subcontractors to organize and fight, and then win.