Issue 39: Workers for workers
08 Mar 2019
Workers across the industry have been floored by the recent light shed on the brutal working conditions and severe mental health consequences of the work of the thousands of content moderators at Facebook and other social media platforms.
The moderators hired to review Facebook’s videos, comments and newsfeeds for harmful or abusive content are assigned to teams with categories like “counter-terrorism”, “self-harm”, “potential imminent risk or harm”.
They watch video after video of suicide, murder, pornography; some moderators watch as many as 2,000 videos in a single day. If they have to go to the bathroom, they click a button on a browser plugin that times them. They keep their belongings in lockers because they are not allowed to have even their phone at workstation, nor a writing utensil or scrap of paper. Any items they have at their desk must be clearly displayed in a clear plastic bag.
They are managed by the second, and held to impossible to maintain accuracy scores with ever-changing rulebooks and guidance from management that contradicts whatever version of truth Workplace’s algorithms choose to serve up. One person described it as a “high-stakes video game in which you start out with 100 points — a perfect accuracy score — and then scratch and claw to keep as many of those points as you can. Because once you fall below 95, your job is at risk”.
“They are pressured not to discuss the emotional toll that their job takes on them, even with loved ones, leading to increased feelings of isolation and anxiety… Collectively, the employees described a workplace that is perpetually teetering on the brink of chaos. It is an environment where workers cope by telling dark jokes about committing suicide, then smoke weed during breaks to numb their emotions. It’s a place where employees can be fired for making just a few errors a week — and where those who remain live in fear of the former colleagues who return seeking vengeance. It’s a place where, in stark contrast to the perks lavished on Facebook employees, team leaders micromanage content moderators’ every bathroom and prayer break; where employees, desperate for a dopamine rush amid the misery, have been found having sex inside stairwells and a room reserved for lactating mothers; where people develop severe anxiety while still in training, and continue to struggle with trauma symptoms long after they leave; and where the counseling that Cognizant offers them ends the moment they quit — or are simply let go.”
Facebook warned investors this year that the need to “invest in security” would reduce profitability. So why are profits up 61% over the previous year? Of the 30,000 security employees hired, 15,000 of them are content moderators, many of whom are contracted through Cognizant in Phoenix, Accenture in Austin, and Genpact in Hyderabad. In Phoenix their pay is on average $28,000 a year. In Hyderabad their pay is $1,404 a year. The contractors’ low wages and status as line items in profit and loss statements rather than as headcount subsidizes the high wages of full time security engineers whose median income is $250,000.
For the workers on the inside who already knew too well these conditions, the growing awareness adds fuel to their continued fight. Moderators in Austin have said that since they’ve started to build solidarity and collective action, they’ve seen their concerns start to be resolved. One of those moderators encourages us to continue to fight together: “We content moderators worked together as a united group to reach out to Accenture and Facebook, to make our concerns heard, and have some of them resolved. Imagine the outcome of our efforts if we continued to grow together to keep striving for better working conditions, such as less expensive access to healthcare and raises for tenured Content Moderators.”
As of this week contingent workers of Facebook will continue to share their stories through a website; you can follow their fight on WorkersForWorkers.org and on Twitter at @Workers4workers.
TWC Austin Meet & Greet
Saturday, 3/9 6:30PM at Monkeywrench Books in Austin
Facebook • Meetup
Labor Law for the Rank and File
Wednesday, 3/13 6:45PM at CIIS in San Francisco
Facebook • Meetup
Seattle Writing Club at Victrola
Sunday, 3/15 1PM at Victrola on 15th in Seattle
Chasing Innovation w/ Lilly Irani (Silicon Valley Uncovered)
Tuesday, 3/26 3PM at TBD in San Francisco
TVC learning club
Sunday, 3/31 2PM at San Jose Peace & Justice Center in San Jose
The Code of Conduct is in effect at all TWC events.
Organizing Tip Of The Week
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS!
When you’re first starting out it can be really frustrating to notice something egregious happening at work and feel powerless to take action. That’s perfectly normal; you should be angry at injustice. Register that feeling and reflect on it, because organizing your workplace is a long and difficult process. When you’re in the middle of the grind and overwhelmed, it’s good to remember what you’re fighting for. It can be tempting to take action by yourself but you’re only risking your own safety and acting with the smallest unit of power we have, the individual. Our strength comes from our numbers and it takes time to build a strong community that can act together. Good luck out there. We have your back!
In The News
Artists and immigration activists set up an exhibit at SXSW that recreates the cruel hieleras, or iceboxes, that ICE uses as an abuse technique on detained individuals. If you’re in Austin, go see it today and tomorrow.
Bird has quietly begun abandoning its practice of paying independent contractors a per-vehicle rate to fix its scooters.
No, cybersecurity is not “keeping us safe”.
Parents at Amazon are organizing to demand better child care options. “In Seattle tech circles, friends of parents taking jobs at Amazon often joke: Leave a photo at home for your children so they don’t forget who you are.” In a sea of companies that are hostile to working parents, Amazon is the most brutal.
No surprises here: Corporations prop up “chief diversity officers” to simultaneously check the box for having a person of color in leadership and get PR for trying to improve the abysmal lack of diversity at their companies.
Scotland’s first sex worker union has formed.
”Bosses in every industry, she said, try to cut costs by misclassifying their employees; the only difference between strippers and tech workers is “what they wear—or don’t wear—on the job.” Classification divides us and undermines workers’ solidarity across industries.