AI Workers Urge President Biden for Intervention Against Low Pay, Labeling it ‘Modern Day Slavery’

Caroline Haskins

AI projects like OpenAI’s ChatGPT get part of their savvy from some of the lowest-paid workers in the tech industry—contractors often in poor countries paid small sums to correct chatbots and label images. On Wednesday, 97 African workers who do AI training work or online content moderation for companies like Meta and OpenAI published an open letter to President Biden, demanding that US tech companies stop “systemically abusing and exploiting African workers.”

Most of the letter’s signatories are from Kenya, a hub for tech outsourcing, whose president, William Ruto, is visiting the US this week. The workers allege that the practices of companies like Meta, OpenAI, and data provider Scale AI “amount to modern day slavery.” The companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A typical workday for African tech contractors, the letter says, involves “watching murder and beheadings, child abuse and rape, pornography and bestiality, often for more than 8 hours a day.” Pay is often less than $2 per hour, it says, and workers frequently end up with post-traumatic stress disorder, a well-documented issue among content moderators around the world.

The workers signing the letter claim to work in content review on platform such as Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram and also assist in labelling images and aiding chatbot responses for companies developing generative-AI technology, such as OpenAI. They are connected with the African Content Moderators Union, the first of its kind on the continent, as well as a group of workers who were laid off from training AI technology for companies that include Scale AI, which provides datasets and data-labeling services to clients such as OpenAI, Meta, and the US military. The letter was made public on the website of Foxglove, a UK-based advocacy group that champions tech-worker unions and fair tech.

Reportedly, Scale AI banned people living in Kenya, Nigeria, and Pakistan in March from working on Remotasks, Scale AI’s platform for contractual work. The letter alleges these workers were abruptly cut off without notice and are owed a substantial amount of unpaid wages.

Joan Kinyua, a member of the group of former Remotasks workers, stated in direct communication with WIRED, that when Remotasks went offline, it pulled the rug from under them and depleted their means of livings. Scale AI, the large company that operates the platform, gets off scot-free, mainly because it’s based in San Francisco.

The Biden administration has often been vocal about its attempts to implement a labor policy that is “focused on the worker.” According to the letter from the African workers, the administration has not extended this policy to them, stating “we are considered disposable.”

“You have the power to stop our exploitation by US companies, clean up this work and give us dignity and fair working conditions,” the letter says. “You can make sure there are good jobs for Kenyans too, not just Americans.”

Tech contractors in Kenya have filed lawsuits in recent years alleging that tech-outsourcing companies and their US clients such as Meta have treated workers illegally. Wednesday’s letter demands that Biden make sure that US tech companies engage with overseas tech workers, comply with local laws, and stop union-busting practices. It also suggests that tech companies “be held accountable in the US courts for their unlawful operations aboard, in particular for their human rights and labor violations.”

The letter comes just over a year after 150 workers formed the African Content Moderators Union. Meta promptly laid off all of its nearly 300 Kenya-based content moderators, workers say, effectively busting the fledgling union. The company is currently facing three lawsuits from more than 180 Kenyan workers, demanding more humane working conditions, freedom to organize, and payment of unpaid wages.

“Everyone wants to see more jobs in Kenya,” Kauna Malgwi, a member of the African Content Moderators Union steering committee, says. “But not at any cost. All we are asking for is dignified, fairly paid work that is safe and secure.”

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