Tech

The leaked memo shows that TikTok knows it’s in trouble at work

Last month a a court in Kenya issued a landmark ruling against Matt, the owner of Facebook and Instagram. The US tech giant, the court ruled, was the “genuine employer” of hundreds of people who worked in Nairobi as moderators on its platforms, sifting through messages and images to filter out violence, hate speech and other shocking content. This means that Meta can be sued in Kenya for labor rights violations, even if the moderators are technically hired by a third-party contractor.

Social media giant TikTok has been following the case closely. The company also uses outsourced moderators in Kenya and elsewhere in the Global South under contract to Luxembourg-based Majorel. Leaked documents obtained by NGO Foxglove Legal and seen by WIRED show that TikTok is worried about being next in line for possible litigation.

“TikTok is likely to face reputational and regulatory risks related to its contractual arrangements with Majorel in Kenya,” the note said. If the Kenyan courts rule in favor of the moderators, the memo warned that “TikTok and its competitors could be subject to scrutiny for real or perceived violations of labor rights.”

The ruling against Meta came after the tech company tried to get the court to drop a case brought against it and its outsourcing partner Sama by South African moderator Daniel Motaung, who was fired after trying to form a union in 2019.

Motaung said the job, which meant viewing violent, graphic or other traumatic content on a daily basis, left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. He also claimed that he was not fully briefed on the nature of the work before he moved from South Africa to Kenya to start the job. Motaung accuses Met and Sam of several violations of Kenyan labor laws, including human trafficking and union busting. If Motaunga’s case succeeds, it could allow other big tech companies operating in Kenya to be held accountable for the way staff are treated there, setting the stage for similar cases in other countries.

“[TikTok] sees it as a reputational threat,” says Corey Kreider, director of legal affairs at Foxglove. “The fact that they are exploiting people is a reputational threat.”

TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.

In January, as the Motaung lawsuit was pending, Meta attempted to cut ties with Sam and outsource its operations to TikTok partner Majorel.

In the process, 260 Sama moderators were expected to lose their jobs. In March, a judge issued an injunction preventing Meta from terminating Sama’s contract and transferring him to Majorel until a court could determine whether the layoffs violated Kenya’s labor laws. In a separate lawsuit, Sama moderators, some of whom spoke to WIRED earlier this year, alleged that Majorel blacklisted them from applying for new Meta moderator jobs in retaliation for trying to improve working conditions at Sama. In May, 150 moderators working on TikTok, ChatGPT and Meta through third-party companies voted to form and register the African Union of Content Moderators.

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