More than 150 workers whose labor underpins the AI systems of Facebook, TikTok and ChatGPT gathered in Nairobi on Monday and pledged to establish the first African Content Moderators Union, in a move that could have significant consequences for the businesses of some of the world’s biggest tech companies.
The current and former workers, all employed by third party outsourcing companies, have provided content moderation services for AI tools used by Meta, Bytedance, and OpenAI—the respective owners of Facebook, TikTok and the breakout AI chatbot ChatGPT. Despite the mental toll of the work, which has left many content moderators suffering from PTSD, their jobs are some of the lowest-paid in the global tech industry, with some workers earning as little as $1.50 per hour.
As news of the successful vote to register the union was read out, the packed room of workers at the Mövenpick Hotel in Nairobi burst into cheers and applause, a video from the event seen by TIME shows. Confetti fell onto the stage, and jubilant music began to play as the crowd continued to cheer.
The establishment of the Content Moderators Union is the culmination of a process that began in 2019, when Daniel Motaung, a Facebook content moderator, was fired from his role at the outsourcing company Sama after he attempted to convene a workers’ union called the Alliance. Motaung, whose story was first revealed by TIME, is now suing both Facebook and Sama in a Nairobi court. Motaung traveled from his home in South Africa to attend the Labor Day meeting of more than 150 content moderators in Nairobi, and addressed the group.
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“I never thought, when I started the Alliance in 2019, we would be here today—with moderators from every major social media giant forming the first African moderators union,” Motaung said in a statement. “There have never been more of us. Our cause is right, our way is just, and we shall prevail. I couldn’t be more proud of today’s decision to register the Content Moderators Union.”
TIME’s reporting on Motaung “kicked off a wave of legal action and organizing that has culminated in two judgments against Meta and planted the seeds for today’s mass worker summit,” said Foxglove, a non-profit legal NGO that is supporting the cases, in a press release.
Those two judgments against Meta include one from April in which a Kenyan judge ruled Meta could be sued in a Kenyan court—following an argument from the company that, since it did not formally trade in Kenya, it should not be subject to claims under the country’s legal system. Meta is also being sued, separately, in a $2 billion case alleging it has failed to act swiftly enough to remove posts that, the case says, incited deadly violence in Ethiopia.
“It takes a village to solve a problem, but today the Kenyan moderators formed an army,” said Martha Dark, Foxglove’s co-director, in a statement. “From TikTok to Facebook, these people face the same issues. Toxic content, no mental health care, precarious work – these are systemic failures in content moderation.
Moderators from TikTok, employed by the outsourcing company Majorel, also said they would participate in the union. “Seeing so many people together today was incredible,” said James Oyange, a former TikTok content moderator at Majorel, who has taken a leadership role in organizing his former colleagues. “People should know that it isn’t just Meta—at every social media firm there are workers who have been brutalized and exploited. 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.”
Workers who helped OpenAI detoxify the breakout AI chatbot ChatGPT were present at the event in Nairobi, and said they would also join the union. TIME was the first to reveal the conditions faced by these workers, many of whom were paid less than $2 per hour to view traumatizing content including descriptions and depictions of child sexual abuse. “For too long we, the workers powering the AI revolution, were treated as different and less than moderators,” said Richard Mathenge, a former ChatGPT content moderator who worked on the outsourcing company Sama’s contract with OpenAI, which ended in 2022. “Our work is just as important and it is also dangerous. We took an historic step today. The way is long but we are determined to fight on so that people are not abused the way we were.”
Read More: Exclusive: OpenAI Used Kenyan Workers on Less Than $2 Per Hour to Make ChatGPT Less Toxic
Mercy Mutemi, a lawyer at Nzili and Sumbi Advocates, the law firm suing Meta in both Motaung’s case and the Ethiopia hate speech case, said Monday’s events were a watershed. “Moderators have faced unbelievable intimidation in trying to exercise their basic right to associate,” she said. “Today they have made a powerful statement: their work is to be celebrated. They will live in fear no longer. Moderators are proud of their work, and we stand ready to offer the necessary support as they register the trade union and bargain for fair conditions.”
Foxglove, which is funded in part by the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundation, paid for the Nairobi event along with Superrr Lab, a German non-profit.
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