“We need jobs – but not at any cost”: Kenyan tech workers speak out during President Ruto’s US visit

Right now, President Ruto of Kenya is taking part in the first state visit by an African leader in nearly two decades. Tomorrow, he will meet with President Biden.

What’s Ruto doing at the White House? Well, Kenya is negotiating a new Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership with the US. For Ruto, this deal is a critical path to creating jobs in Kenya – a core plank of his election campaign – with US tech companies.

However, as Ruto ties his jobs plan to Big Tech, his government is simultaneously refusing to enforce violations of its labour laws by those same tech companies in Kenya. Indeed, at a Court of Appeal hearing on Monday, when Meta was attempting to have a case against the unlawful firing of 184 Facebook content moderators dismissed, a representative of Ruto’s Attorney General spoke – in support of Meta. 

So tech workers in Kenya have every reason to fear the malign influence of Big Tech in these trade talks. Companies like Meta, OpenAI and Scale AI have a track record of treating Kenya as a place where they can exploit cheap labour and dodge rules, rather than a partner in sustainable economic development. And Big Tech’s lobbying power in Kenya and the US could mean that they try to stitch a trade deal which is stacked in their favour.

Everyone wants more jobs for workers in Kenya – but not at any cost. Jobs that destroy the health of young workers and leave them unable to contribute to the future of the Africa continent, aren’t good for anyone.

That’s why were proud to coordinate an open letter to President Biden, signed by nearly a hundred African tech workers, calling on him to use his power to make sure the obligation for US tech companies to obey international law is included into this new trade partnership.

Hit the link below to read it in full:

The open letter is signed by 97 data labellers, content moderators and Artificial Intelligence (AI) workers based in Nairobi, Kenya, who work for American companies like Meta, ScaleAI, OpenAI via their outsourcing companies in Kenya.

The open letter was also endorsed by Dr Willy Mutunga, former Chief Justice of Kenya and a prominent human rights advocate.

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

“Meta refused to pay AI workers in Kenya fairly. Now, they are imploring the President to make sure that AI workers in Kenya, who do the critical work that makes Facebook safe to use, can no longer be exploited and abused by companies like Meta.”

Joan Kinyua, of the Remotasks Kenyan workers steering committee, said: “When Remotasks shut down, it took our livelihoods out of our hands – the food out of our kitchens. But Scale AI, the big company that ran the platform gets away with it because it’s based in San Francisco. This week they raised another $1bn.

“As digital work continues to grow in Kenya, we need to know the jobs offered by US companies like Scale AI will not vanish in a puff of smoke whenever the wind changes. President Biden: use your power to ensure protections for digital gig workers like us are baked into this new trade partnership, so no-one else has to face the same situation we did.”