In May of 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic fully underway, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would allow most of its employees to continue working from home until at least the end of the year in an effort to “contain the spread of Covid-19 so we can keep our communities safe and get back up and running again soon.”
But that same luxury was apparently not extended to the thousands-strong fleet of contract workers Facebook employs to moderate harmful content on the platform, and on Wednesday, 200 of those workers sent an open letter to top executives at the company objecting to the way they’ve been treated.
Addressed to Zuckerberg and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, as well as the CEOs of outsourcing companies Accenture and Covalen, the letter accuses Facebook of compromising the health and safety of its contractors and their loved ones in order “to maintain Facebook’s profits during the pandemic.”
“After months of allowing content moderators to work from home, faced with intense pressure to keep Facebook free of hate and disinformation, you have forced us back to the office,” the letter reads. “Moderators who secure a doctors’ note about a personal COVID risk have been excused from attending in person. Moderators with vulnerable relatives, who might die were they to contract COVID from us, have not.”
As it is, there have already been COVID outbreaks in several of Facebook’s offices, with workers in Ireland, Germany, Poland and the United States testing positive for the virus.
And according to the letter-writers, the threat of infection comes on top of an already psychologically punishing workload—one that led Facebook to pay out some $52 million to US-based contractors last spring for trauma they endured on the job:
Before the pandemic, content moderation was easily Facebook’s most brutal job. We waded through violence and child abuse for hours on end. Moderators working on child abuse content had targets increased during the pandemic, with no additional support.
Now, on top of work that is psychologically toxic, holding onto the job means walking into a hot zone. In several offices, multiple COVID cases have occurred on the floor. Workers have asked Facebook leadership, and the leadership of your outsourcing firms like Accenture and CPL, to take urgent steps to protect us and value our work. You refused. We are publishing this letter because we are left with no choice.
Along with the ability to work from home, the letter’s signatories also list a number of other demands, including an option to receive hazard pay and a call to end outsourcing and bring the content moderators in-house so that they can receive healthcare and other benefits.
The letter prompted a response from Facebook, with the company quick to argue that the majority of the 15,000 content reviewers it employs have continued to work from home during the pandemic and reiterating that it does make “well-being resources” available to its workers.
“While we believe in having an open internal dialogue, these discussions need to be honest,” Facebook spokesperson Toby Partlett told the New York Times in a statement. “Facebook has exceeded health guidance on keeping facilities safe for any in-office work.”