A lawsuit against Meta shows the void of social enterprises

Earlier this year, Meta and its biggest content moderation partner in Africa, Sama, have been accused of union busting, forced labor and human trafficking. The lawsuit claims that “misleading job advertisements” lured potential employees from across Africa who, once aware of the true nature of the job, often had no way to return home. And when content moderator Daniel Motaung tried to organize his colleagues for better working conditions and pay, Sama fired him.

A victory for Motaung, who filed the lawsuit, could force social media companies to invest in their content moderators, even if they are not direct employees. (In response to the lawsuit, Meta claims that they have never employed Motaung and are therefore “not responsible or aware” of any of the allegations. However, Motaung contends that the moderators are Meta employees at the time. material and legal sense: they use Meta’s internal systems and guidelines, work closely with Meta staff and to a work schedule established by Meta.) What hasn’t received as much attention, however, that’s what the lawsuit means for companies claiming to improve the developing world. Sama is a so-called social enterprise founded specifically to provide “decent work” to low-income people around the world. Definitions of “social enterprise” vary, but most academics and entrepreneurs agree that it aims to maximize revenue and profits while contributing to a social or environmental goal, usually by supporting a specific marginalized group. In Sama’s case, it is their employees, who often have little or no prior experience in the formal economy. A self-proclaimed “ethical AI” company, Sama has been praised by Fast Company, B Corp, and Forbes, among others. The fact that Sama is now accused of abusing the same workers she was trying to empower reveals the fundamental fragility of the social enterprise model.

Legal background first: The lawsuit was brought in Kenya, which has relatively weak labor protections that the government has often failed to enforce. Government workplace inspections remain rare, courts face large backlogs, penalties tend to be out of proportion to the violation, and employers often fail to comply with court orders. For these reasons, it is rare for employees to file complaints. Even if Motaung wins his case, pushing for a new set of standards for content moderation work, it is unclear whether these standards will actually be implemented in Kenya.

Seen in this light, setting up a regional content moderation hub in a location with such weak labor protections seems almost strategic, or at least practical, for Meta. Salary savings aside, no Labor Department official was monitoring what staff were actually moderating: generally very disturbing content, including beheadings and child sexual abuse, according to Motaung. Meta’s name didn’t even have to be on the door. As a contractor hired to moderate Meta’s content in Africa, it was Sama who recruited and technically employed the workers – around 240 in their Nairobi office. The company specializes in data annotation and digital microwork that can be done by low-income people in developing countries. In addition to content moderation, the company also offers image, video and other product annotation services for clients such as Google, Walmart and Getty Images.

Perhaps Sama’s current problems began with a fundamental shift in mission: originally founded as a nonprofit “SamaSource” in 2008, the company transformed into a purpose-driven social enterprise structure. lucrative in 2019. Earning money has become as much, if not more, of a priority as providing decent work. Evidence of this shift in internal mindset can be seen in Sama’s documents: SamaSource’s early reports are replete with references to giving people “dignified” work and measuring the impact in terms of changes in workers’ lives. and communities. But fast forward to its transformation into a for-profit company and its subsequent rebranding to “Sama,” and that focus on impact on workers seems to have, if not disappeared, at least receded.

The company has always claimed to pay workers a “living wage,” which usually exceeds the minimum wage and provides a decent standard of living for employees in a given country. In the early to mid-2010s, Sama workers in Kenya earned $8 a day, which roughly matches living wage estimates for that period. And a randomized control study found that Sama’s job training and guidance program had long-term benefits on workers’ jobs and earnings, even after they left Sama. However, a recent survey by TIME found that the lowest paid Sama workers in Nairobi earned just $1.50 an hour, barely above the current minimum wage of $1.15 for women in cleaning in Kenya, and well below the $2.61 an hour that cashiers must be paid. Noting “a work culture characterized by mental trauma, intimidation and the alleged suppression of the right to organize”, Sama workers being among the lowest paid employees of Meta in the world, the TIME survey also question the findings of the RCT.

James C. Tibbs