On Friday, Facebook content moderators in Ireland and members of Foxglove—a technologist activist group that has helped mobilize content moderators—held a press conference on YouTube after meeting with the country's deputy Prime Minister (Tánaiste) Leo Varadkar to speak out about working conditions at the tech giant and present demands for improving them.
For years, content moderators across the digital economy, but specifically at Facebook, have suffered performing the invisible labor necessary to function daily. At Facebook, their viewing and screening harmful content is essential to the platform’s existence, but content moderators are treatedly markedly different from employees in the company. Moderators are often contracted instead of employed, outsourced, underpaid, made to sign restrictive non-disclosure agreements, and provided inadequate mental health support for the material they’re forced to view every day.
Ibrahim Halawa, one of the content moderators in the press conference, is a former political prisoner who's worked at Facebook since release from Egyptian prison in 2017. Hawla said that other moderators feared retaliation if they appeared to criticize a job that essentially forced them “sign away their life once they start.”
“For me to be able to do such a crucial job and such an important job—starting all the way from keeping the platform safe for your kid to national security—that does not mean I should have to sign away my life away to do such a job,” Halawa said. “I should be able to raise concerns.”
In Ireland, workers have been pushing Covalen—which has a major outsourcing contract with Facebook—to allow them to work remotely during the pandemic, as Facebook has allowed other staff members throughout the pandemic and content moderators at the start. Leaked audio showed that when content moderators were told to return to the office in fall 2020, they expressed fear and anger that Facebook employees who “do the same fucking job” were allowed to work remotely. Facebook has made similar moves in India, where 35,000 content moderators were told to return to the office while employees and other in-house staff were allowed to continue working remotely.
"We are risking our jobs," Hawla added. "We have tried all our means of complaining and all the means of complaining in the workplace and the workforce. A lot of employees have shown concern, a lot of employees have written in the media with their identities hidden. That is not fair to work in a place in this urgent time in Ireland and be in such fear to speak up just for improvements, simple improvements."
Paria Mosfeghi, another Facebook content moderator who said she has worked there for years, voiced similar concerns at the press conference and in her meeting with Varadakar.
“The thing that has most bothered me in the years of doing this job is being treated as a second-class citizen. The people who supervise my work and do quality assurance are employees. They have real mental health [support], they have proper pay,” Mosfenghi said. “Facebook values their work—why doesn't it value ours? We want the same rights and protections as Facebook employees. The way Facebook organizes this work feels discriminatory and unfair. Facebook is one of the world's richest companies yet Facebook asks us to risk our life, to come into work, and keep Facebook safe and profitable. Can't they afford to hire us?”
At the meeting, the content moderators petitioned Varadkar to support their efforts to realize equal treatment, access to better care, and an end to a culture of reprisal and secrecy. For the past few months, Varadkar has been open to support workers and reached out to Facebook and spoke with Head of Policy Nick Clegg, while content moderators have been waiting for months for their own meeting.
"By speaking up for thousands of their fellow moderators around the world, Ibrahim and Paria did something heroic today, but the truth is they shouldn't have to be heroes,"said Cori Crider, director of Foxglove who also attended the meeting. "Facebook has run in its workplace a culture of intimidation and needless secrecy for years. It's actually everyone's right to demand fair and safe working conditions in public."