More than 200 content moderators at Facebook have signed an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg demanding better COVID-19 protections. They say management has needlessly put their lives at risk by forcing them back into the office, even as full-time employees work from home until July 2021.
On October 12th, content moderators working for the third-party contracting firm Accenture in Austin, Texas were asked to return to the office. The company implemented additional cleaning measures and asked employees to wear masks. Despite these efforts, a contractor tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after returning to work, according to The Intercept.
Facebook has been under intense pressure to stop the spread of viral misinformation and take down incitements to violence, particularly around the 2020 US election. During the pandemic, it relied more heavily on artificial intelligence to detect content that violated its policies. “The AI wasn’t up to the job,” content moderators say in the letter, which was published by the law firm Foxglove. “Important speech got swept into the maw of the Facebook filter — and risky content, like self-harm, stayed up.”
While high-risk workers do not have to return to the office, contractors say the policy doesn’t extend to those who live with high-risk individuals. They’re asking Facebook and Accenture to allow moderators to work from home if they live with someone who is high risk.
Workers are also demanding hazard pay of 1.5x their typical hourly wage and asking Facebook to stop outsourcing their work. “Facebook should bring the content moderation workforce in house, giving us the same rights and benefits as full Facebook staff,” the letter says.
The demands reflect longstanding tensions between content moderators and the big tech companies for which they contract. While these workers are asked to look at some of the most vile content on the internet, their jobs often lack the pay and benefits of full-time employees. Some, at Google and YouTube, have gotten PTSD from their work.
Roughly 63 workers signed the letter to Facebook by name. Foxglove says another 171 across the US and Europe signed anonymously. “This is the biggest joint international effort of Facebook content moderators yet,” the law firm tweeted. “Many more moderators in other sites wanted to sign, but were too intimidated by Facebook - these people are risking their livelihood to speak out.”
In a statement emailed to The Verge, a Facebook spokesperson pushed back on the idea that content moderators aren’t able to work from home and don’t have sufficient protection. “We appreciate the valuable work content reviewers do and we prioritize their health and safety. While we believe in having an open internal dialogue, these discussions need to be honest,” they wrote. “The majority of these 15,000 global content reviewers have been working from home and will continue to do so for the duration of the pandemic. All of them have access to health care and confidential wellbeing resources from their first day of employment, and Facebook has exceeded health guidance on keeping facilities safe for any in-office work.”