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10 Jul 2023

Billy Perrigo, Time

Kenya: Ex-TikTok moderator alleges trauma and unfair dismissal & threatens to file a lawsuit against TikTok & Majorel

"Former TikTok Moderator Threatens Lawsuit in Kenya Over Alleged Trauma and Unfair Dismissal", 10 July 2023

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is facing a potential lawsuit in Kenya over allegations it failed to protect the mental health of workers tasked with preventing disturbing content from appearing on the short-form video app.

James Oyange Odhiambo, a Kenyan former content moderator for TikTok, who was employed by the outsourcing firm Majorel in Nairobi, alleges he developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his work. He says he was later unfairly dismissed in retaliation for advocating for better working conditions.

The allegations were made in a letter dated June 29 that was sent by the law firm Nzili and Sumbi Advocates to ByteDance and Majorel—the outsourcing company that employs the content moderators—threatening a lawsuit. The letter has given the companies two weeks to comply with a series of demands before lawyers for Odhiambo file a lawsuit.

In the letter, Odhiambo’s lawyers allege that he was required as part of his job to watch, at times, between 250 and 350 TikTok videos per hour. The “vast majority” of these videos, the letter alleges, were “horrific in nature.”

Other videos that Odhiambo was required to watch on the job, the letter says, included rape and sexual assault; torture and murder; child abuse; suicide and self harm; and human babies and animals being dismembered.

A TikTok spokesperson declined to comment on the accusations made in the letter. ByteDance did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, Majorel’s executive vice president Karsten König said: “At Majorel, the health and well-being of our content moderators is our priority. We demonstrate this every day by providing 24/7 professional psychological support, together with a comprehensive suite of health and well-being initiatives that receive high praise from our people. ...”

TikTok’s parent company is just the latest big tech firm to run into legal trouble over content moderation in Kenya.

‘Failure to Provide Adequate Mental Health Care’

The letter alleges that ByteDance and Majorel took “no steps” to create a safe working environment that could mitigate the well-known risks of content moderators developing PTSD, amounting to violations of Kenya’s Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Content moderators were not given the ability to “opt out” of watching graphic content, according to the letter.

The result, the letter claims, was that many content moderators including Odhiambo developed PTSD. Some of his colleagues, the letter alleges, reported suicidal thoughts.

‘Unlawfully terminated’

Odhiambo was employed as a TikTok content moderator for a year, between April 2022 and April 2023. The letter alleges that during this time, Odhiambo had “attempted to advocate for himself and his colleagues to attain safer working conditions, meaningful mental health support, as well as pay equity.”

In response to these attempts, the letter alleges, ByteDance and Majorel refused to renew Odhiambo’s contract, in contravention of a clause saying that the contract would be renewed yearly barring poor workplace performance or declining business needs.

In its statement to TIME, Majorel did not address Odhiambo’s claims about retaliation.

The letter argues that ByteDance is jointly responsible for the alleged violations of the law that occurred at its outsourcing partner Majorel. This is because, according to the letter, ByteDance controls “every significant aspect” of the work by providing the software, setting targets, and deciding the level of mental health care to be offered.

The letter demands that ByteDance and Majorel comply with a list of 14 demands, and says a lawsuit will be filed if the demands are not met within two weeks. The demands include that both firms issue public acknowledgements of alleged wrongdoing, make offers to compensate Odhiambo and his colleagues, hire “qualified and adequately experienced” clinicians to provide mental health care for current and former workers, and affirm the right of content moderators to join a union.