Need to protect tech workers

It is the apex of hypocrisy to champion technology while ignoring the workers who toil in its shadow.

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The work available to youth in Kenya has undergone rapid and significant digitalisation in recent years. The combination of a young and highly educated workforce facing an economy in recession, the after-effects of the pandemic and chronic unemployment have proven attractive to big tech companies seeking a pool of ready workers.

And as legal and policy frameworks play catch-up to the Digital Age, the firms offer low wages and minimal labour protections.

Digital supply chain workers, like social media content moderators and microworkers, are not recognised yet they carry the digital economy on their backs. As I write this, 184 Facebook content moderators are bringing a legal case against the tech giant Meta and the business process outsourcing (BPO) firm they engaged, Sama, for unfair dismissal.

The duo argue that Kenyan courts do not have the power to hear it—a claim the courts have repeatedly rejected. The Court of Appeal recently heard their appeal and its ruling is expected in weeks.

The government has failed to protect citizens from the predatory practices of Big Tech and the BPOs that help them keep workers at arm’s length from their core operations and legal obligations. The same politicians who have extolled the virtues of these companies and encouraged the youth to take advantage of what has come to popularly be known as the ‘Tantangelei’ economic phenomenon have ignored the precarious nature of these jobs.

Irregular hiring

The documented irregular hiring and termination activities of global companies highlight the vulnerability of digital workers in this emerging realm, especially those who depend primarily on digital platforms for a livelihood. Moreover, they have been silent on the very real risks and perils involved in digital work. Content moderators speak of their work’s damage to their lives and the psychological scars.

They lament that, though “soldiers” and “police”—endangering themselves to protect other people from harm online—their labour is invisible, badly paid, precarious and seldom comes with even minimal psychological support. Tasked with watching graphic and violent content, sometimes upwards of 10 hours a day, many have suffered depression, insomnia and suicidal thoughts. Fainting, physical ailments and even miscarriages have dogged them.

The customary practice of compelling content moderators to sign non-disclosure agreements in this context appears for what it is: Evil. Feeling unable to tell their loved ones, sometimes even medical practitioners, about their work and its effects, many have suffered alone, in silence. An especially tragic consequence is the number of families and marriages broken by the work’s violence as it rippled silently outwards.

Employment laws

While the government has side-stepped its responsibility to citizens, it’s within its power—and interests—to take action. Our employment laws need to be reformed: Setting minimum wage requirements and contractual obligations and recognising digital work as legitimate employment. And the law must stipulate the provision of appropriate healthcare by firms to workers, expand training programmes and evaluate the match between education systems and the labour market—then act upon those findings.

Digitalisation

Digitalisation (and particularly artificial intelligence) will continue to create new opportunities while eradicating existing ones and reducing the human agency required to do others. Adaptation, upskilling and attitudinal change will be key to surviving and thriving in the emerging digital workspace. Regulators must be at par with emerging technologies and trends and our education systems evaluated and reformed for the labour market.

Decent work respects workers’ rights and fundamental human rights. But the workers who train and maintain the technologies shaping our present and future are overlooked, exploited and their work minimised as unprofessional. Kenya exemplifies the struggle many African nations face: Its young population is desperate for opportunities, which plays into the hands of cruel employers.

We must seize the chance to redefine work on the grounds of human rights and dignity and ensure workers have a seat at the table alongside policymakers and legislators. It is the apex of hypocrisy to champion technology while ignoring the workers who toil in its shadow.

Ms Wako-Ojiwa is the executive director, Siasa Place. [email protected]. @NerimaW