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Former TikTok Moderator Threatens Lawsuit in Kenya Over Alleged Trauma and Unfair Dismissal

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Updated: | Originally published:

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is facing a potential lawsuit in Kenya over allegations it failed to protect the mental health of workers tasked with preventing disturbing content from appearing on the short-form video app.

James Oyange Odhiambo, a Kenyan former content moderator for TikTok, who was employed by the outsourcing firm Majorel in Nairobi, alleges he developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his work. He says he was later unfairly dismissed in retaliation for advocating for better working conditions.

The allegations were made in a letter dated June 29 that was sent by the law firm Nzili and Sumbi Advocates to ByteDance and Majorel—the outsourcing company that employs the content moderators—threatening a lawsuit. The letter has given the companies two weeks to comply with a series of demands before lawyers for Odhiambo file a lawsuit.

In the letter, Odhiambo’s lawyers allege that he was required as part of his job to watch, at times, between 250 and 350 TikTok videos per hour. The “vast majority” of these videos, the letter alleges, were “horrific in nature.”

Read More: Behind TikTok’s Boom: A Legion of Traumatized, $10-A-Day Content Moderators

“To this day, our client struggles to cope with the videos he watched, particularly of gruesome violence against the vulnerable and helpless,” the letter says. “He has distinct memories of people begging for their lives, and graphic abuse of children and kittens.”

Other videos that Odhiambo was required to watch on the job, the letter says, included rape and sexual assault; torture and murder; child abuse; suicide and self harm; and human babies and animals being dismembered.

A TikTok spokesperson declined to comment on the accusations made in the letter. ByteDance did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, Majorel’s executive vice president Karsten König said: “At Majorel, the health and well-being of our content moderators is our priority. We demonstrate this every day by providing 24/7 professional psychological support, together with a comprehensive suite of health and well-being initiatives that receive high praise from our people. We know that providing a safe and supportive working environment for our content moderators is the key to delivering excellent services for our clients and their customers. And that’s what we strive to do every day.”

TikTok’s parent company is just the latest big tech firm to run into legal trouble over content moderation in Kenya. The law firm representing Odhiambo is also representing clients suing Facebook’s parent company Meta in two separate cases in Kenya, related to alleged violations of the law that occurred at a third-party contractor. A Nairobi judge ruled on June 2 that Meta was the “principal employer” of the outsourced content moderators in one of those disputes—meaning that the company could be held liable under Kenyan law. Foxglove, a legal nonprofit based in London, is providing funding and strategic coordination in the cases against Meta, and in Odhiambo’s claims against ByteDance and Majorel.

“If TikTok wants to operate in this country, it has to respect the rights of its workers,” Odhiambo’s lawyer Mercy Mutemi said in a statement. “It’s time we had a serious and honest conversation about the exploitation of the youth here in Kenya by Big Tech companies like ByteDance. My client Mr. Odhiambo braved the damaging work of content moderation diligently working to clean up TikTok. He was an exemplary worker who even went a step further to advocate for the fair treatment of the Kenyans working as content moderators. He should not be punished for that. We will fight for him to access justice.”

‘Failure to Provide Adequate Mental Health Care’

The letter alleges that ByteDance and Majorel took “no steps” to create a safe working environment that could mitigate the well-known risks of content moderators developing PTSD, amounting to violations of Kenya’s Occupational Health and Safety Act.

“No psychiatric support was offered to our client to prepare for, or continue to undertake, the work,” the letter alleges. It adds that instead of being consulted by medical professionals, content moderators struggling with the mental burden of the work were initially offered only access to a “quiet room.” Thereafter, the letter says, content moderators were offered 30 minutes per day with a “wellness counselor” who was not a medical doctor. “This on-site counselor did not have the expertise or experience to offer the support our client and his colleagues needed including diagnosis or medical treatment,” the letter claims.

Content moderators were not given the ability to “opt out” of watching graphic content, according to the letter.

The result, the letter claims, was that many content moderators including Odhiambo developed PTSD. Some of his colleagues, the letter alleges, reported suicidal thoughts. “Our client suffers from anxiety, insomnia, vivid flashbacks and nightmares which have significantly decreased his quality of life and ability to work,” the letter says. “Our client has had difficulty obtaining employment given the lingering trauma from the work he did for you.”

‘Unlawfully terminated’

Odhiambo was employed as a TikTok content moderator for a year, between April 2022 and April 2023. The letter alleges that during this time, Odhiambo had “attempted to advocate for himself and his colleagues to attain safer working conditions, meaningful mental health support, as well as pay equity.”

In response to these attempts, the letter alleges, ByteDance and Majorel refused to renew Odhiambo’s contract, in contravention of a clause saying that the contract would be renewed yearly barring poor workplace performance or declining business needs. The letter says Odhiambo was recognized by Majorel as a “Feel Good Champion,” a designation that the letter says meant the company considered him “a good team player and a great role model for his colleagues.” The letter adds that ByteDance and Majorel are continuing to recruit and expand their Kenyan operations. “It is clear therefore that your failure to comply with the terms of his contract was due to our client’s efforts to advocate for his own, and his colleagues’ legal rights,” the letter says. “You decided not to renew his contract in retaliation for these actions.”

In its statement to TIME, Majorel did not address Odhiambo’s claims about retaliation.

The letter argues that ByteDance is jointly responsible for the alleged violations of the law that occurred at its outsourcing partner Majorel. This is because, according to the letter, ByteDance controls “every significant aspect” of the work by providing the software, setting targets, and deciding the level of mental health care to be offered. “ByteDance is the true employer of all TikTok moderators, regardless of its choice of outsourcer,” the letter argues.

The letter demands that ByteDance and Majorel comply with a list of 14 demands, and says a lawsuit will be filed if the demands are not met within two weeks. The demands include that both firms issue public acknowledgements of alleged wrongdoing, make offers to compensate Odhiambo and his colleagues, hire “qualified and adequately experienced” clinicians to provide mental health care for current and former workers, and affirm the right of content moderators to join a union.

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Write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com