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'We are risking our jobs': Facebook moderators speak out on COVID risk of being forced back to offices

In a meeting Friday, content moderators pleaded with the deputy prime minister of Ireland to push Facebook to let them work from home

Facebook

Content moderators say they're putting their lives at risk by working in the office — and putting their jobs at risk by speaking out.

Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

Two Facebook content moderators in Ireland met with the country's deputy prime minister, Leo Varadkar, Friday in hopes of convincing him to push Facebook to let them work remotely. Moderators working for the Facebook outsourcing firms, including Accenture and Covalen, have been sent back to the office in recent months, even as Facebook executives and employees continue to do their work from home.

These moderators, who work for Covalen, said that by returning to the office amid a dramatic COVID-19 spike in Ireland, they're putting themselves and their families at risk. "It is a very crucial, important job for everyone. If that is to be kept safe and done well, we need to take care of the employees," said Ibrahim Halawa, who works the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift and has been a moderator for three years.

According to the moderators and other people who joined the meeting, Varadkar promised to send letters to Facebook sharing the moderators' concerns about COVID-19 safety and securing their proper mental health care. Following the meeting, the deputy prime minister wrote on Twitter: "Met with internet content moderators today. They do really important work to protect all of us. Will be following up on some of [the] issues they mentioned."

Halawa said Covalen has broken some of its promises with regard to COVID-19 safety precautions since bringing employees back to work, including a promise to close the building where he works for 72 hours in the event of any cases being detected inside. Moderators have complained that that isn't happening, Halawa said, and have been told "the client refused for us to close the building." The client, in this case, is Facebook.

Covalen didn't immediately respond to Protocol's request for comment. A Facebook spokesperson said the confusion was due to an error in a PowerPoint presentation that Covalen gave to moderators, which didn't accurately reflect the company's plans.

"The 72-hour shut down referred to the policy in March when the building was operating at full capacity. When Covalen re-opened in August with significantly reduced capacity, they updated the procedures to reflect that," the spokesperson said, noting that the building now receives a daily deep-clean and that moderators were informed of this policy change. The spokesperson also sent a lengthy list of COVID-19 precautions that the facilities take, including mask mandates, reduced capacity in the building and a contact-tracing system based on badge data for anyone who is diagnosed with COVID-19.

Halawa was joined by Paria Moshfeghi, another content moderator, who described feeling like a "second-class citizen" compared to the Facebook employees who have been working remotely for a year. "We want the same rights and protection as Facebook employees," she said. "Facebook asks us to risk our life to come into work and keep Facebook safe."

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, Facebook sent all of its content moderators home, a decision that led to a precipitous drop in removals of the most egregious posts, including child sexual abuse imagery and suicide-related content. In recent months, however, moderators in Ireland and Texas have returned to offices, often without a choice in the matter, Halawa and Moshfeghi explained.

Halawa said he'd expressed concern about exposing his mother, a recovering cancer patient, to the virus, as he is one of her primary caretakers. "The response I was given, and it really annoyed me, was: 'Well, try to stay away from her then,'" Halawa said.

On a call with reporters in November, Facebook's vice president of integrity, Guy Rosen, explained the importance of bringing moderators back to work. "People are an important part of the equation for content enforcement," Rosen said. "The reason we're bringing some workers back into offices is exactly to ensure that we can have that balance of both people and AI working on these areas."

The moderators argue that if their work is really so important, it ought to be treated as such.

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