SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook content moderators who review violent and other explicit content are making a renewed push for better treatment, as they say Facebook continues to underpay them and undervalue their contributions.
That effort may have also cost at least one worker his job. A contractor in Austin was fired this month after protesting conditions on the company’s internal forums and posting YouTube videos of Bruce Springsteen, the Clash and other artists on his internal company profile, according to the worker, his colleagues and others familiar with the situation.
On Thursday, a group of a dozen moderators published a new letter reviewed by The Washington Post on Facebook’s internal Workplace forum, demanding better pay and a revision of confidentiality agreements they say prevent them from seeking clinical help to address the traumatic effects of the job, among other asks. The moderators work for an Accenture subsidiary in Austin.
“Low pay, increased monitoring from managers, and strictly enforced production quotas have played a significant role in diminished morale in our workplace,” according to the letter. “People have been pushed to a point where they feel that their personhood, as well as their work, has been devalued because they are viewed as interchangeable parts in a machine.”
The letter — the fourth from the Austin group this year — comes at a moment of rising tension for Facebook over the treatment of the 15,000 moderators and thousands of other contingent and outsourced workers it contracts through a network of third-party outsourcing companies across the world. Recent media reports, including by The Post and the Verge, have highlighted severe mismanagement at some contractor sites and the stark emotional toll these jobs take on workers, some of whom are beginning to speak out publicly.
Facebook referred questions about the fired moderator to Accenture. Accenture declined to comment. Facebook declined to comment on the letter, and Accenture spokesman Sean Conway said its employee agreements place no restrictions on peoples’ ability to confide in psychotherapists or clinicians.
Facebook has made a number of changes to address criticisms of its treatment of outsourced workers. In May, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg took to Workplace to announce the company planned to raise wages for all contractors in the Bay Area to $20 per hour and to $18 for all other U.S. contractors. The company also said it would begin to provide on-site counseling for content moderators globally and during all shifts, after night-shift workers complained they don’t have access to a counselor.
Sandberg posted her announcement a week after a Post story chronicled the moderators’ fight for better treatment at the Austin Accenture site. Moderators said they felt that even though they do the company’s hardest job and are frequently touted by Facebook executives as the front line of defense against a host of social problems, the starting wage is 14 percent of the median Facebook salary, forcing some to take side jobs, such as becoming Uber drivers. Confidentiality agreements and company rules prohibit moderators from posting about their employer on LinkedIn, confiding in friends or even taking a photo in front of the office, making some say they feel like second-class citizens. Their letters and posts have prompted strong internal responses from full-time Facebook employees over the past several months, who have openly questioned the company’s values on Workplace.
The Austin-based contractor who Accenture fired posted a lengthy response to Sandberg following her post, rebutting some of her points. The worker asked to remain anonymous for fear that using his name could affect future employment prospects, but provided documentation and recordings to The Post. He was not a content moderator.
The worker, whose job was to monitor advertisers to prevent bogus ad scams, said he worked at a WeWork site under frustrating conditions. Addressing the letter to Sandberg, he complained about unrealistic expectations and constant auditing of people’s movements and decisions, including bathroom visits. He said he had not been offered a raise or promotion opportunity after three years, despite the company’s claims that most workers get offered advancement opportunities. He worked in a different subsidiary than the group of a dozen moderators also calling for changes and was not involved in the protests before that.
Late last month — four days after his initial letter to Sandberg — Facebook executive Keith Wulffraat responded to his Workplace post saying that someone from his team would reach out to him to “better understand” his concerns, according to images reviewed by The Post.
That same week, the worker started posting YouTube videos on his workplace profile of the Springsteen songs, as well as “Know Your Rights” by the Clash and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott Heron. He included the hashtag #workersforworkers alongside each video, according to the documentation.
“End of the day, factory whistle cries; men walk through these gates with death in their eyes; and you just better believe, boy; somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight,” Springsteen sings in “Factory.” And in “The Promised Land,” he sings: “But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold; sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode; explode and tear this whole town apart.”
BCForward, a firm Accenture contracts with to supply contingent workers, suspended the worker two days later, while he was taking a sick day.
He had a phone meeting with Wulffraat and an Accenture human resources executive in early June, during his suspension. Executives asked him about his concerns and brought up the song lyrics several times. The HR representative said the choice of song lyrics was “interesting and concerning,” according to a Washington Post review of the recording. She said people had complained about them.
The worker responded that he was a former musician and had frequently posted song lyrics on his internal profile, and that no one had ever complained. He asked whether bringing up the lyrics was a form of retaliation for complaining about working conditions and said it was never his intention to frighten anyone.
He was fired in a phone call the following week. During the firing meeting, a brief phone conversation, an HR official told him he was being moved off the project. When he asked for clarification as to whether that meant he was being fired, the official said yes. When he asked why, he was told that the song lyrics he posted presented a safety issue for the company, he said.
Meanwhile, the content moderators asked in the letter they posted Thursday for a base pay raise to $19.50 per hour to make ends meet in gentrifying Austin. They also asked for exceptions to the confidentiality agreements that would enable them to talk to outside psychotherapists and clinicians about the traumatic impact of the work, and for an end to quotas for the number of posts to review. Facebook denies that it uses quotas.