On April 28, outside the Nairobi office of Sama, a crowd of over 80 former employees staged a daylong sit-in. Until January, Sama had been Meta’s main content moderation service in Africa. The demonstrators, armed with copies of court orders, demanded the company pay their salaries for April. “We’re not protesting. We’re here to demand what’s rightfully ours,” John Mohammed, who was part of the group, told Rest of World.

A screenshot from a video showing a protest by online content moderators.
Martin K.N Siele for Rest of World

In January, Sama stopped providing content moderation services after numerous allegations of low pay, mental trauma, and union busting. The company also cut the entire 260-person moderation team, following which 184 moderators filed a lawsuit against Sama. A Nairobi labor court subsequently issued a temporary order halting the layoffs, pending the outcome of the unfair termination suit. The former content moderators say they have been trapped in a difficult situation. In addition to losing their income, many told Rest of World they’re dealing with mental health issues resulting from their work, and are struggling to find employment elsewhere.

“The nature of work we do, it helps when you’re around other people. That togetherness. You encourage each other,” said Nathan Nkunzimana, union organizer and one of the moderators who had filed the petition against Meta and Sama. “You can imagine being alone in your house, having no money, and you are already kind of mentally disturbed. It’s been tough for us. It’s been tough for me personally.”

In a press statement on its website, Sama said it respects the protesters’ right to peaceful demonstration. It also stated that the court order did not stop its partnership with Meta from ending. “The petitioners have twice asked the court to extend their expiring contracts and twice have been declined,” the statement read. “The Sama moderation contract with Facebook has expired — the Court Orders did not stop it from expiring, and we do not have any content moderation work to give.”

According to Mohammed, the company asked the employees to return their laptops and ID cards by May 11. The same day, the Employment and Labour Relations Court instructed Sama to pay the April salaries to the 184 former content moderators — they’ve yet to receive payment.

“[The ruling] was exciting, but it was anticipated,” Nkunzimana said. “You can imagine [how hard it is] going for a month without pay. A lot of the people affected are foreigners. They don’t have anyone in Nairobi, so you can imagine how hard it was.”

For the laid-off moderators, the battle is far from over. “After years of bullying and intimidation from big tech firms, moderators are saying ‘our work matters, we’re tired of being treated like a dirty secret, and together we can force change,’” Cori Crowder, co-founder of tech justice nonprofit Foxglove, told Rest of World. Crowder’s firm has been providing legal services for content moderators at various social media companies since 2019.

In March, Foxglove reported that some of Sama’s former employees had applied for similar roles at Majorel, the company contracted to take over content moderation in Africa for Meta. But the workers claim every application was rejected. “Many Sama moderators applied for the ‘new’ positions with Majorel, in effect re-applying for the jobs they were doing already. Despite their obvious expertise and experience, they were unsuccessful,” Foxglove wrote. “Messages between moderators and Majorel recruiters reveal that the recruiters were specifically instructed not to hire any moderators previously employed by Sama. One recruiter said: ‘Unfortunately they will not accept candidates from Sama, it’s a strict no.’”

Kauna Malgwi, 29, is among the former Sama workers whose lives are in limbo right now. A trained clinical psychologist, Malgwi worked at Sama for four years, starting in 2019. Her job involved reviewing and flagging content that violated Facebook’s guidelines. She would typically start her day at 7 a.m., sifting through thousands of posts daily, many of which contained disturbing content such as videos depicting murders, road accidents, rape, beheadings, and suicides. She earned around $600 per month. Five months after losing her job, Malgwi told Rest of World, she continues to struggle with mental health issues from the moderation work.

“You can imagine watching graphic stuff like suicide videos for four years, what it does to you.”

“Right from training, I started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks,” she said. “I went into depression, and I’m still battling it and anxiety today. [The job] changed my life more than I thought … I’ve seen a man rape a 2-year-old. You become paranoid [after watching such content]. It affects other relationships in your life, how you socialize and relate to people.”

Annepeace Alwala, vice president for global service delivery at Sama, told Rest of World the company had processes in place to help employees dealing with mental health issues. “Sama provides on-site licensed mental health professionals that employees can access at any time,” Alwala said in an email, mentioning a list of other services, such as a 24/7 hotline, game rooms, meditation rooms, and prayer rooms that the company offered its employees.

“You can imagine watching graphic stuff like suicide videos for four years, what it does to you,” Maina, who had worked for Sama since 2019, told Rest of World. She requested to use a pseudonym because of a non-disclosure agreement with the company. “I have a phobia of crossing certain roads. I can’t do certain things because of what I see. When I sit in the house alone at night, I keep thinking of certain graphic videos that I saw.”

On May 1, Malgwi was among the roughly 150 professionals from across Africa who gathered in Nairobi to pledge to create the African Content Moderators Union. The initiative was formed to collectively negotiate for better employment terms and working conditions from companies contracted by the likes of Meta, ByteDance, and OpenAI.

The move was considered a landmark step, as previous attempts by moderators in Africa to unionize have failed. In May 2022, Daniel Motaung, a former Facebook moderator, sued Meta and Sama in Kenya. He claimed he had been wrongfully terminated by the latter in 2019 as he was attempting to start a union to demand better working conditions.

“I think I haven’t been that happy in a long time,” Malgwi said, referring to the union’s formation. “This union is so important to us because our rights will be protected. Most of us are young, 20- to 30-something-year-olds. We have friends and family who might end up in the industry. It’s about protecting the next generation. It will enable moderators to speak up, to deal with trauma. It will be a shield and cover for us.”