Kenyan Court First To Tell Meta It Can’t Walk Away From A Lawsuit Just By Claiming It’s Not From Around Here

Kenyan Court First To Tell Meta It Can’t Walk Away From A Lawsuit Just By Claiming It’s Not From Around Here

from the cranking-open-the-liability-floodgates dept

A lawsuit filed over exploitation of content moderators will be allowed to continue, according to a recent ruling by a Kenyan court. Former employees of Meta sued the company in the Kenya Employment and Labour Relations Court last year, alleging being subjected to a “toxic work environment” while performing the often unpleasant task for removing harmful content before it is seen by Facebook users. The plaintiffs also alleged Meta and its third-party contractor (Kenyan digital services provider, Sama) engaged in “union busting” and refused to provide mental health services to moderators.

The allegations also detail what moderators view as pay rates much lower than what should be expected for people hired to wade through the internet cesspool on behalf of a company worth hundreds of billions of dollars. An expose of the work conditions by Time last year contains this absurd explanation for lowballing moderator pay:

Sama’s late founder Leila Janah attempted to justify the company’s levels of pay in the region. “One thing that’s critical in our line of work is to not pay wages that would distort local labor markets,” she said. “If we were to pay people substantially more than that, we would throw everything off.”

Ah, yes. We can’t have tech disruptors disrupting local labor markets. Anything else that can be broken while moving fast is still on the table, but outsourcing pay rates must remain in line with that of local, non-multinational, non-multi-billion dollar companies.

Anyway, back to the lawsuit. While most foreign-based companies have been successful raising the argument they can’t be sued in other countries because they do not actually reside there, this tactic hasn’t worked in this case.

Through its lawyer, Meta had argued that Meta Platforms, Inc. and Facebook are foreign corporations and neither residents nor trading in Kenya, thus were not under the country’s jurisdiction. However, the Employment and Labour Relations Court ruled on February 6 that Meta can be sued in Kenya. It will be the first time that a lawsuit against a global tech giant is proceeding to a hearing, not just outside of the West, but in Africa, where the wrongdoing happened.

This ruling has obvious implications for US companies utilizing foreign-based outsourcing contractors. While it may seem the intermediary (Sama, in this case) is more directly responsible for low pay and toxic working environments, the fact remains the work is being performed for Facebook. Just because Meta hasn’t placed a physical footprint in Kenya doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not culpable for workplace violations related to its moderation efforts.

The article suggests this will “open the floodgates” for similar lawsuits. And it may indeed result in that. But a single labor court in a single country does not set worldwide precedent. If this does provoke copycat lawsuits, a lot of copycat litigants are going to find out that precedent is only useful in its original court jurisdiction. While this ruling may nudge judges towards allowing extra-jurisdictional litigation to proceed, more often than not judges are likely to see the implications of letting anyone sue anyone anywhere in the world and shut down many of these lawsuits.

But for lawsuits filed in Kenya, there’s a chance Meta will be held accountable for its alleged involvement in not only this terrible chain of events, but for other harms it has allegedly caused, like those listed in another suit.

[T]wo Ethiopian researchers… together with the Kenyan rights group the Katiba Institute, are suing Meta for USD 1.6 billion for allowing hateful content to flourish on their platform and fueling Ethiopian ethnic violence.

Yes, moderation at scale is still impossible. But companies shouldn’t use this as an excuse to ignore the working conditions moderators are subjected to or to shrug at the negative outcomes of inadequate moderation efforts. Companies need to do better, both for their users and for their employees. And far too many times, it takes a lawsuit to make these things happen.

Filed Under: content moderation, contractors, kenya, venue

Companies: meta, sama