Kenyan tech workers call out US Big Tech for ‘modern-day slavery’

Kenyan tech workers call out US Big Tech for ‘modern-day slavery’

OpenAI on website on smartphone stock photo (3)

Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

TL;DR

  • Nearly 100 Kenyan tech workers have sent an open letter to President Biden, demanding an end to exploitation by US companies like Meta and OpenAI.
  • The workers describe harsh conditions, low pay, and mental health issues, accusing the companies of labor practices amounting to “modern-day slavery.”
  • They urge President Biden to ensure trade agreements include strong labor protections and accountability measures for US firms operating abroad.

In a significant move, 97 African tech workers involved in AI training and content moderation for major US corporations like Meta and OpenAI have addressed an open letter to President Biden. The letter, published on 22 May, accuses these companies of “systemic abuse and exploitation” of African workers and calls for urgent intervention.

The letter, first reported by Wired, was also cc’d to US Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai. It coincides with Kenyan President William Ruto’s visit to the US to mark the 60th anniversary of US-Kenyan diplomatic relations and discuss trade, investment, and technological innovation.

The workers allege that the practices of companies like Meta, OpenAI, and data provider ScaleAI “amount to modern-day slavery.” They describe severe exploitation, including mentally and emotionally draining tasks such as monitoring distressing content on social media and labeling data for AI models, often for less than $2 per hour. They also highlight the lack of adequate mental health support, which leaves many workers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Kenayn workers demand fair treatment

Facebook stock photo 6

Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

The letter details instances of union busting in the digital sector. For example, when Facebook content moderators in Kenya attempted to unionize, the entire workforce was dismissed. Meta then shifted its moderation work to Ghana to avoid accountability. A similar incident occurred with Kenyan workers labeling data for the US AI startup ScaleAI. In March 2024, ScaleAI’s outsourcing firm, Remotasks, abruptly exited the African market, leaving workers unemployed and owed significant unpaid wages.

The letter also alleges that US tech companies often consider themselves above Kenyan law and ignore court orders. For instance, despite a court ruling ordering Meta to pay Facebook moderators their salaries, the company has continuously ignored the order, leaving workers unpaid even a year later.

The workers argue that their contributions are vital for the usability of these platforms. Without their work, platforms like Facebook would become unmanageable, potentially causing companies like Meta to lose billions. Despite this, they are paid a fraction of what their US counterparts earn.

The letter details several key demands:

  • Engagement and transparency: The workers request to be involved in any US-Kenya trade negotiations and for draft texts to be published to allow meaningful engagement.
  • Labor protections: They urge for robust provisions in trade agreements to prevent union busting, enforce International Labor Organisation standards, and ensure penalties for non-compliance by US companies.
  • Accountability: They call for US Big Tech companies to be held accountable in US courts for labor and human rights violations abroad.
  • Respect for Kenyan Sovereignty: They emphasize the need for US-Kenya trade agreements to respect Kenya’s Constitution and sovereignty.

The letter also highlights Kenya’s role as a major tech hub, known as the “Silicon Savannah,” and the critical contributions of Kenyan workers to the tech industry. It calls for President Biden to honor his commitment to labor rights and “worker-centered trade” and to ensure that the benefits of technological advancements do not come at the expense of workers’ health and well-being.

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