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I n May, Daniel Motaung, a former content moderator at Sama, Meta’s subcontractor in Africa, filed a lawsuit against both companies. Motaung alleged that the poor working conditions violate local labour, privacy and health laws. He was recruited from South Africa to work in Sama’s Nairobi office where the majority of moderation for East and Southern Africa is conducted. Motaung claims the job description was misleading and did not warn potential recruits that they would be viewing violent and extreme content including beheading and child abuse for USD 2.20 per hour. Foxglove, a London-based legal non-profit, has thrown its weight behind the suit and the content moderators.

Motaung was fired shortly after attempting to form a union (permitted in the Kenyan constitution) advocating for the company’s workers. After a Time magazine investigation in February exposed the alleged exploitation, Sama rejected claims that it had an unfair wage policy, a non-transparent recruitment process and inadequate mental health support for content moderators. The company released a statement through a blog post on its website, stating that it “prioritise(s) employee health and wellness”. As of 1 July, Sama will retain its B Corp certification until the outcome of the legal case is determined.

Documents filed by Nzuli and Nsumbi advocates, the law firm representing Motaung in the petition, claim that Sama subjected its content moderators to irregular pay; inadequate mental health support; union-busting; and violations of their privacy and dignity. The lawsuit seeks financial compensation; an order that outsourced moderators have the same health care and pay scale as Meta employees; the protection of unionisation rights; and an independent human rights audit of the office. Meta receives a service – content moderation – from Sama and does not directly employ any contractors nor does it bear any responsibility for contractor’s working conditions. Meta Platforms, Inc. and Meta Platforms Ireland have argued that the Kenyan High Court has no jurisdiction over them as they are non-Kenyan domiciled companies.

This is not the first time that the company has faced scrutiny over content moderators’ working conditions. In July 2021, a California judge approved a USD 85 million settlement between Facebook Inc and more than 10,000 content moderators, who accused the company of failing to protect them from psychological trauma resulting from their exposure to graphic and violent imagery. In its arguments before the judge, Facebook Inc asserted that a range of factors including genetics and psychological history played a role in the risk of one developing mental health issues. Although the company did not admit wrongdoing, it agreed to take measures to provide its content moderators, who are employed by third-party vendors, with safer work environments.

This lawsuit initiated by Motaung is likely to languish in the Kenyan courts for some time but the issues raised underscore the potential legal and reputational risks facing companies outsourcing their operations to African markets.

Africa: outsourcing’s last frontier?

Outsourcing is not new. Consumer facing companies, particularly clothing manufacturing, financial services and tech, have been shifting jobs to developing countries for decades. The historical benefits of traditional outsourcing regions – India, Southeast Asia and Latin America – are quickly being eroded thanks to rising local wages. As a result, Africa has emerged as a new cost-effective outsourcing destination.

Less than half of the continent’s 54 counties are viable outsourcing locations due to infrastructure, policy and literacy constraints. The front-runners include Nigeria; South Africa; Kenya; Ghana; Mauritius; Madagascar; and Ethiopia. Ghana is West Africa’s leading Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) destination. Its business friendly regulatory and tax environment, favourable time zones, well-educated and Anglophone workforce, governmental support, and robust IT infrastructure combine to create an attractive outsourcing destination.

Similarly, South Africa has positioned itself as a leading BPO destination, leveraging the dominance of English as the dominant business language, convenient time zones for US and EU-based clients, and affordable broadband infrastructure. The country also has a strong call centre industry whose growth has aggressively challenged that of India and the Philippines in recent years. This can be explained by policies initiated by the Department of Trade and Industry such as the Global Business Services Incentive that promotes outsourcing activities. Looking further afield, Madagascar has become a top BPO destination for the Francophone population by having the fastest broadband speed in Africa and highly competitive labour costs.

Outsourced services across several African jurisdictions include website and app development; IT support; call centre services; content creation; transcription; data entry; and data labelling. Africa is the fastest growing continent for software development and major tech giants such as Microsoft and Google offer programming courses and mentorship programs that aim to expand the tech talent pool. Outsourcing to developers in different parts of the world enables flexible and rapid responses to changing market conditions and opportunities.

Reaping the rewards

Africa’s oft touted “demographic dividend” could be realised through the growth of outsourcing across various sectors if this trend is accompanied with labour laws and worker rights to prevent worker exploitation. The anticipated contraction in global economic growth will propel outsourcing to the fore as a credible cost-cutting measure in developed markets despite its effect on the domestic labour market. Large corporates’ and mid-sized companies’ decision to “right size” their operations will inevitably have a knock-on effect on the (d)evolution of local right-wing and left-wing politics in the Global North.

Outsourcing operations to Africa is not quite plug and play. Motaung’s lawsuit against Sama and Meta highlights the potential corporate brand and reputational damage caused by outsourcing. It also demonstrates outsourcing’s ability to negatively impact worker health and well-being if left unchecked. In addition to planing for and navigating local business culture, Western companies will need to mitigate the operational risks associated with the loss of control over the outsourced functions. These risks include ensuring privacy and data protection compliance, upholding core parent company/ultimate client policies and standards and ensuring suppliers’ compliance with local labour regulations.

People don't care about what you say, they care about what you build.

Meta founder, Mark Zuckerberg

There is a thin line between job creation and employee exploitation. More foreign companies will be looking to African markets for cheaper labour, efficient output and professional service delivery. And human rights organisations, investigative journalists and consumers will be focused not on what these companies say, but on what they build.