Home News A Lawsuit Against Meta Shows the Emptiness of Social Enterprises

A Lawsuit Against Meta Shows the Emptiness of Social Enterprises


Earlier this year, Meta and its largest content moderation partner in Africa, Sama, have been charged with union sabotage, forced labor and human trafficking. The lawsuit alleges that “misleading job advertisements” attract potential employees from across Africa who often cannot return home once they realize the true nature of the work. When content moderator Daniel Motaung tried to organize his colleagues to improve working conditions and pay, Sama fired him.

A victory for Motaung, who filed the lawsuit, could force social media companies to invest in content moderators, even if they’re not direct employees. (In response to the lawsuit, Meta alleges that they never hired Motaung and therefore “have no responsibility or knowledge” of any allegations. However, Motaung argues that the hosts are Meta employees in a material and legal sense: they use Meta of internal systems and guidelines, working closely with Meta employees, and following work schedules set by Meta.) What hasn’t gotten much attention, however, is what the lawsuit means for businesses that claim to improve developing countries. Sama is a so-called social enterprise that specializes in providing “decent jobs” to low-income people around the world. Definitions of “social enterprise” vary, but most academics and entrepreneurs agree that their goal is to maximize revenue and profits while contributing to social or environmental goals—usually by supporting specific marginalized groups. In Sama’s case, it was their employees, who usually had little experience in the formal economy. Sama, a company that calls itself “ethical AI,” has been lauded by companies like Fast Company, B Corp, and Forbes. The fact that Sama is now accused of abusing the workers it seeks to empower reveals a fundamental flaw in the social enterprise model.

First is the legal background: the lawsuit was filed in Kenya, a country with relatively weak labor protections that the government often fails to enforce. Government workplace inspections remain rare, courts face massive backlogs, penalties are often disproportionate to the crime, and employers often fail to comply with court orders. For these reasons, employees rarely file complaints. Even if Motaung wins his case, prompting the development of a new set of standards for content moderation work, it is uncertain whether those standards will actually be implemented in Kenya.

From this perspective, establishing a regional content moderation center in a place where labor protection is so weak seems almost strategic, or at least convenient, for Meta. Aside from saving wages, Motaung said, no Labor Department officials monitor what workers are actually moderating: often very disturbing content, including beheadings and child sexual abuse. Meta’s name doesn’t even have to be on the door. As a contractor hired to manage Meta’s content in Africa, it was Sama who recruited and technically hired these workers—about 240 workers in their Nairobi office. The company specializes in data annotation and digital microwork that can be performed by low-income people in developing countries. In addition to content moderation, the company provides image, video and other product annotation services to clients including Google, Walmart and Getty Images.

Perhaps Sama’s current problems begin with a fundamental change in mission: Originally founded as a non-profit “SamaSource” in 2008, the company transformed into a for-profit social enterprise structure in 2019. Earning money has become as much, if not more, a priority for providing decent work. Evidence of this internal shift in thinking can be seen in Sama’s filings: earlier SamaSource reports were filled with references to giving people “dignified” jobs and measuring the impact of changes in workers’ lives and communities. But fast forward to its transition to for-profit and subsequent rebranding to “Sama,” and that focus on employee impact appears to have at least faded, if not gone.

The company has long claimed to pay workers a “living wage”, which often exceeds the minimum wage, and ensures 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, roughly in line with living wage estimates at the time. A randomized controlled study found that Sama’s training and job referral program did produce long-term benefits for workers’ employment and earnings, even after they left Sama. However, a recent survey by Time magazine found that minimum wage workers in Sama earn just $1.50 an hour in Nairobi — just slightly more than Kenya’s current $1.15 minimum wage for cleaners and far less than cashiers have to pay of $2.61 per hour. TIME’s investigation found “a workplace culture characterized by trauma, intimidation and alleged repression of union rights,” while Sama workers are among the lowest paid employees anywhere in Meta’s world, TIME’s investigation also weighed in on RCT’s findings. questioned.

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