In March, as Covid-19 began sending office workers home across the globe, Facebook realized it had a serious problem. The company relies on a vast army of content moderators — often low-paid contractors — who are responsible for removing everything from nudity to hate speech and terrorism content. Their work is often sensitive and, therefore, can’t be done outside a formal office. As the world went into lockdown, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, said during a press call that the social network would lean more on full-time staffers and artificial intelligence to police its platforms.
But, he noted, some of this work would “still be done by teams in person.” One of those teams is located thousands of miles away from the company’s California headquarters in Hyderabad, India, where, as of last year, 1,600 Facebook moderators were employed by a third-party contractor called Genpact. This summer, even as Covid-19 cases were surging in India, Genpact moderators said they felt pressured by their employer to come back to the office. While most of Facebook’s full-time employees remain safe at home, these workers have been forced to choose between their health and their livelihoods: stemming the tide of the most unsavory and disturbing posts on the internet.
Rest of World spoke with four current and former Genpact employees, all of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from the company. They said moderators were asked — in some cases as early as July — to return to the office to tackle sensitive content, including posts involving child exploitation, suicide, and other matter that could lead to real-world harm. Two moderators said that Genpact pressured workers to show up at Facebook’s office in HITEC City, a corporate district home to some of India’s biggest tech companies. Two moderators also reported that Genpact is continuing to shift more employees to work on Facebook content.
In a statement, Genpact said it couldn’t comment on specific relationships with clients, but it asserted that moderators are being asked to come into the office on only a volunteer basis. “To make this manageable, safe, and clear, employees need to sign a weekly form that asks them to voluntarily agree to this,” a spokesperson for the company said in an email.
Facebook also asserted that moderators are working in person only if they choose the option and that most are still doing their jobs from home. “Our focus for reopening any office is on how it can be done in a way that keeps our reviewers safe,” a spokesperson for Facebook said in a statement. “To do this we are putting strict health and safety measures in place, making sure they’re followed, and addressing and disclosing any confirmed cases of illness.”
With few opportunities for other work, the moderators who spoke to Rest of World said they still felt like they had no choice but to show up in person. A senior moderator said that Genpact employees were also informed they could lose their jobs if they didn’t come to the office. “The operations team told them these are important orders,” said the moderator. “There’s a threatening factor behind [it].”
“People are forced to go to work, even if they are not happy to,” they added. Genpact denied that it incentivizes anyone to work in person. The company emphasized that coming into the office “is voluntary, and we remind each employee that their decision has no impact on benefits, pay, or status.”
In the middle of a pandemic and subsequent recession, it’s not clear where the Genpact moderators would go if they lost their jobs. “During Covid times, many companies are holding off on new recruitments,” said R. Chandra Sekharam, a commissioner with the Labour Department of Telangana, the Indian state where Hyderabad is located.
In March, an IT company that shares an office building with Facebook made a grim announcement: one of its employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. Fears of contracting Covid-19 soon swept the city. Hostel owners and other landlords in Hyderabad, afraid that tenants working in large offices would bring the virus home with them, began evicting people who work in business process outsourcing (BPO) and telecommunications.
According to two Genpact moderators, that included some of their colleagues working for Facebook. When they reached out to Genpact asking for help finding a new place to live, one employee said the plea fell on deaf ears. “There’s no help being given by the company,” they told Rest of World. Genpact denied the claim and said it worked with authorities to stop evictions and offered some people alternative housing.
Just two days after that first case of Covid-19 was announced, Genpact employees were asked to return to work in Facebook’s office, according to one moderator who was called back. In May, the Washington Post reported that Facebook had offered extra pay to moderators in the U.S. who voluntarily agreed to return to work. The Genpact workers told Rest of World that no such bonus was extended to them in India.
Before the pandemic, the moderators said that their salaries, which amount to less than $2 an hour, were supplemented by food benefits, received either in the form of in-office meals or through a prepaid meal card. One moderator described the perk as coming directly from Facebook. But when Genpact employees were sent home during India’s Covid-19 lockdown, the benefit disappeared. During an internal Facebook meeting leaked to The Verge in September, Zuckerberg fielded a question from a staffer at the company’s California headquarters, who complained about the lack of free snacks available while they worked from home. But for reviewers in India, meal benefits were more than just a cushy perk: They were a crucial supplement to their low incomes. (Genpact says that it is continuing to provide packed meals and snacks for on-site workers.)
Moderators who have returned to Facebook’s office in Hyderabad say they are unhappy but also afraid of losing their jobs. “Calling people in [to work] in such situations is completely unprofessional,” one former moderator told Rest of World. That person left Genpact after being sent home in March but remains in contact with former coworkers. “Genpact is doing it because there aren’t any jobs, and people are getting laid off. So people are too scared to actually say anything. And I think that’s what Genpact is taking advantage of.”
Contractors, unlike Facebook’s full-time employees, have almost no leverage to demand changes to their working conditions, says Paul Barrett, deputy director of New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. Despite accounting for a core part of Facebook’s business, contract moderators “are viewed as replaceable cogs in a machine,” he says.
Facebook has also been criticized for its treatment of domestic content moderators. In May, the company agreed to pay $52 million to settle a class action lawsuit filed by reviewers in the U.S., who alleged the traumatic nature of their work led to mental health issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder. Facebook admitted no wrongdoing, but as part of the settlement, the company vowed to improve labor conditions. Yet contractors have continued to report problems, particularly during the pandemic. Earlier this month, The Verge reported that Facebook moderators at the third-party firm Accenture said they were ordered to report to their offices in Austin, Texas, without any explanation or extra pay. (Facebook said the work done by the Austin team can’t be done from home.)
Mithun Roy, a managing consultant at the outsourcing firm Avaya, says that companies like Genpact can charge more for employees who work directly from a client’s office than from an outsourcing site. When clients like Facebook request a firm’s services, Roy says they have to be as detailed as possible, including disclosing where the work will be performed. According to Roy, a yearlong contract from a client like Facebook can be worth millions of dollars.
“Management doesn’t want to miss this opportunity,” the senior Genpact moderator told Rest of World. That person said the company has been pushing moderators to work on-site at Facebook’s Hyderabad office even as Covid-19 cases have skyrocketed in the city, in order to gain an advantage over competitors less comfortable sending workers in person. “Even after the pandemic ends, this could [mean] new workstreams for us,” the senior moderator said.
Genpact and Facebook aren’t the only entities pushing contractors in Hyderabad to return to normal. The city’s economy is increasingly reliant on business from multinational tech companies. It’s been home to Microsoft’s regional headquarters since 1998, and the largest Amazon office in the world opened there last year. As the pandemic progressed, and many workers left the city for their hometowns, officials began fearing that Hyderabad’s tech industry would soon experience massive layoffs.
Hyderabad went into lockdown on March 22. Officials began allowing IT workers to return to the office less than two months later on May 1, and some even sooner. During India’s lockdown and subsequent reopening, IT companies were considered “essential” by the government, allowing them to skirt certain coronavirus regulations placed on other businesses. According to a state minister in Hyderabad, this designation predates the pandemic: It’s meant as a guarantee to multinational companies that their outsourced workforces won’t be disrupted.
Activists and health care workers have warned that the state of Telangana “vastly” underreported cases of Covid-19 and deaths related to the virus. In July, when the senior moderator said their colleagues began returning to the office, case counts were so high that the state was considering going back into lockdown. Jayesh Ranjan, the IT secretary for the state government of Telangana, said he doesn’t believe there were major discrepancies in case counts. He also noted that rates of Covid-19 in the city have stayed lower than in other metros like Bangalore and Pune. Ranjan said complaints about IT workers’ returning to their offices “were few and far between.” He said, “We have not given any serious consideration to these kinds of things.”
But Ibrahim Baig, a leader with the Forum for IT Employees in Hyderabad, told Rest of World that the consensus among workers is that the city is still too unsafe for them to go back to the office. “There is a pressure from the state government,” Baig said, “to return to normal,” in order to encourage international businesses and workers from across the country to stay in Hyderabad. The fear is that prolonged disruptions would drive away firms like Facebook.
But for Genpact workers, “There’s no promise we won’t be infected,” the senior moderator said.