More Kenyans take up dispute-riven tech jobs

Saturday September 16 2023

Samasource employees at work in Nairobi, Kenya on August 9, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG


Samasource has announced fresh plans to recruit over 2,000 Kenyans to do content moderation and data training for artificial intelligence models, even before the dust could settle on its recently concluded court battle with former employees.

Cabinet Secretary for Industry, Trade and Investments, Moses Kuria, after meeting with Samasource CEO Wendy Gonzalez last week, said the US-based business process outsourcing company will hire at least 2,100 Kenyans by end of September, terming it “the right decision”.

This fresh hiring proclamation comes barely a month after the legal battle between Samasource and its former employees came to an abrupt end after they opted to settle out-of-court.

The former employees, who were hired to moderate content for Meta platforms in Kenya, last year sued Samasource and Meta over claims of union busting, poor compensation and depraved working conditions and unfair dismissal.

Read: Kenya threatens ban on Facebook

Even before things could calm down from the court battle, reports emerged that other workers who were employed to train artificial intelligence (AI) models for OpenAI’s ChatGPT in Kenya underwent severe mental torture but were offered little or no counselling and were paid between $1.46 and $3.74 per hour.


Some of these former employees have also petitioned the government to look into what they consider are ‘exploitative conditions’ under which people reviewing AI content are employed.

‘Digital extractivism’

Yet, without any public inquest or known policy review to protect such workers, the government is linking more Kenyans to the same jobs, a move which activists have criticised as irresponsible.

Chenai Chair, a senior programmes officer at digital rights advocacy organisation Mozilla says it is stamping “digital extractivism – the practice of people in digital space looking for labour with unfair conditions and taking data without giving people the right to choose how their data is going to be used”.

Ms Chair argues that this trend that has been growing in the Global South not just with Samasource or Meta, but with several ‘Big Tech’ companies from the Global North, which take advantage of cheap workers to make realise profits.

She says the Kenya government’s deal with Samasource to employ more Kenyans is particularly curious because there is yet to be any “follow-up by government to see the labour protection policies that will be put in place to protect the new employees and how the industry practice conforms with existing laws in the country.”

Read: The harrowing work of content moderators in Kenya

“I think when Kenya does set a tone in regulating this space, other African countries will then figure out that if we’re going to go the route of increased employment through these BPO organisations, these are the labour regulations that we need to put in place,” the South African activist told The EastAfrican.

Mozilla’s senior programs officer in charge of technology and society fellowships, Roselyn Odoyo, says there’s need to review Kenya’s labour and data protection laws to reflect the realities of the present age as a way of protecting the rights of Kenyans working for ‘Big Tech’ companies and putting an end to the growing trend of ‘digital extractivism’.

“Reviewing the law is important to make it relevant to the times. It only makes the laws better. It provides an opportunity to pull in all the stakeholders because the reason why extractivism is harmful is because it silences the voices of the most affected,” Ms Odoyo said.

She says that with the level of unemployment in Kenya, especially among the youth, many will just settle for the poor conditions offered by the Big Tech companies as they have no alternatives, which is essentially exploitation.

“It’s like giving a thirsty person in the desert dirty water, and saying should this person drink it? Of course, they’ll drink it because it is a point of desperation,” Ms Odoyo told The EastAfrican.

“So, the conversation is about not leveraging the desperation of people or situations for the benefit of people or entities that are based in completely different contexts.”

When reached for comment, Samasource did not respond to our queries on any changes they have made to improve the working conditions of their new recruits.