Facebook’s parent company Meta is not in contempt of court for not paying dozens of content moderators who were laid off by the subcontractor, Sama.
The ruling comes after scores of content moderators had been made redundant by Sama, a contractor, in March this year. A number of them subsequently filed a lawsuit suing Meta, Sama and other contractors for unfair dismissal.
Negotiations for the parties involved to pursue an out-of-court settlement through mediation then collapsed in October after the moderators who had brought the lawsuit dismissed an offer saying it was too low.
‘No deliberate contempt’
In his decision, judge Mathews Nduma Nderi said on Thursday that the US tech giant had not “deliberately and contemptuously” breached a court order still requiring Meta to pay wages to the moderators.
“They did various things which they thought were lawful in trying to deal with their situation, but we did not find that what they did amounted to contempt,” Nderi said.
The contempt of court application against Meta and its contractors was lodged after in an earlier ruling, a different judge had banned Meta from laying off the workers while a decision on their case was still pending.
However, the content moderators said they hadn’t been paid during this period as the court had ruled they should be, resulting in a contempt case being lodged.
Original lawsuit over unfair dismissal
US-based sub-contractor Sama was first hired by Facebook to moderate its content in east and southern Africa in 2019. In March 2023, Sama decided to withdraw from the content moderation business for what it said were economic reasons, which resulted in mass terminations, mainly affecting its hub in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.
However, the sacked content moderators believe they were fired because of attempts to unionize as well as due to complaints over working conditions and a lack of mental health support.
They say they also were blocked from applying for jobs at a second subcontractor, Luxembourg-based Majorel, which later was awarded the African content moderation contract by Facebook after its withdrawal from Sama.
Thursday’s ruling meanwhile does not signal an end coming to the highly publicized lawsuit. The legal counsel representing the content moderators now has 45 days to amend its contempt of court petition.
The judge also highlighted that unless the matter was resolved out of court, the case would be given priority for the court to determine its merits.
After Thursday’s ruling, British tech rights group Foxglove, which is supporting the plaintiffs, said it was still eager to bring the ongoing case to trial.
“We remain confident of our case overall, as we have prevailed on every substantive point so far,” Foxglove director Martha Dark told the Reuters news agency, adding: “The most important ruling remains the one we won in June; Meta can no longer hide behind outsourcers to excuse the exploitation and abuse of its content moderators.”
In early June, that Meta was still the “principal” employer of the outsourced content moderators working in the Nairobi hub, and that therefore it could be held liable under Kenyan law, especially since their work tasks were carried out using Meta’s own proprietary technology, while also adhering to the tech giant’s performance and accuracy metrics.
As part of a broader interim decision, the court ruling in June also resulted in Meta being ordered to “provide proper medical, psychiatric and psychological care” to the moderators, as their jobs entailed screening content uploaded by users and removing any uploads deemed to be in breach of Facebook’s community standards.
This exposed them to disturbing images, including rape, murder, suicide and self-harm. the moderators said they were traumatized by viewing this endless streams of highly graphic content.
“The reason we don’t see videos of beheadings and sexual violence on Facebook is because there are content moderators on the front line, constantly consuming this content, reviewing it and taking it down before you and I have a chance to look at it,” lawyer Mercy Mutemi, who represents 43 of the plaintiffs, said after Thursday’s ruling.
“Facebook and Sama lure young, promising yet vulnerable, and unsuspecting youth from Kenya and other African countries,” she told DW.
Earlier this month, DW spoke to a young woman from , who had worked as a content moderator for Facebook in Nairobi. Requested to remain anonymous, she said: “All you see is manslaughter, dismembered bodies or people being burnt alive, there’s no warning.
“And once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”
More legal troubles for Meta in Kenya
Meta, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, meanwhile faces another two lawsuits in Kenya alone:
Another former content moderator is suing Sama and Facebook in Kenya for a raft of alleged rights violations, including exploitation and union-busting. In the lawsuit lodged in 2022, Daniel Motaung claims he was paid as little as $2.20 (€2.04) an hour to view posts that included beheadings and child abuse, affecting his long-term mental health.
Furthermore, a local NGO lodged a $1.6 billion lawsuit alongside two Ethiopian citizens, accusing Meta of inflaming the civil war in Ethiopia due to its alleged failure to remove hate speech on Facebook.
Despite mounting legal troubles, East Africa continues to witness growing interest from international tech firms, which often use third-party outsourcing companies. With its young and tech-savvy English speakers, stable internet connection and a similiar time zone to much of Europe, countries like Kenza and Ethiopia are becoming increasingly attractive for conglomerates like Meta and its subsidiaries.
However, low pay rates and insecure employment contracts, coupled with this exposure to graphic content, raise questions about the exploitative conditions that content moderators often have to work under.
Andrew Wasike and Mariel Müller, both based in Nairobi, contributed to this article
Edited by Sertan Sanderson