Open letter to President Biden from tech workers in Kenya

22 May 2024

Dear President Biden, 

Cc: Ambassador Katherine Tai, US Trade Representative, 

We are 97 data labellers, content moderators and Artificial Intelligence (AI) workers in Nairobi, Kenya. We work for American companies like Facebook, ScaleAI, OpenAI via their outsourcing companies in Kenya.

We understand you will meet Kenya’s President William Ruto on his official state visit, to “mark the 60th anniversary of US – Kenyan diplomatic relations and will celebrate a partnership that is delivering for the people of the United States and Kenya.” We write because we understand you will discuss, “trade, investment and technological innovation issues in which our workforce has a direct and personal stake.

US Big Tech companies are systemically abusing and exploiting African workers. In Kenya, these US companies are undermining the local labor laws, the country’s justice system and violating international labor standards. Our working conditions amount to modern day slavery. Any trade-related discussions between the US and Kenya must take into account these abuses and ensure that the rights of all workers are protected.

To ensure future US – Kenyan partnerships deliver for the working people of Kenya, we call on you to:

  1. Commit to engaging with us and other workers in the Big Tech supply chain, during any US – Kenya trade related negotiations. Please commit to publishing any draft text in future negotiations so we can engage with it seriously.
  2. Ensure any US – Kenyan Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership agreements include robust provisions to prevent union busting and ensure US companies operating in Kenya must comply with the core conventions of the International Labor Organisation – and provide serious enforcement mechanisms and meaningful penalties, should law-breaking companies fail to meet their obligations.
  3. Ensure US Big Tech companies can be held accountable in the US courts for their unlawful operations abroad, in particular for their human rights and labor violations.
  4. Ensure a fundamental respect for Kenya’s Constitution and sovereignty sits at the heart of all negotiations involved in establishing the Kenyan Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership.

We are glad Kenya is one of the largest emerging tech hubs in the world. Known as the ‘Silicon Savannah’, Nairobi is an important global player in the technology industry. As tech workers, we are proud to play a role in the development and training of world-class emerging technologies – and, crucially, making them safe

Kenya has high levels of unemployment and the tech boom has created much needed new jobs here, particularly for young people who are the majority of digital workers. We need these jobs, but not jobs at any cost.

We do this work at great cost to our health, our lives and our families. US tech giants export their toughest and most dangerous jobs overseas. The work is mentally and emotionally draining. We scrub Facebook, TikTok and Instagram to ensure these important platforms do not become awash with hate speech and incitement to violence. We label images and text to train generative AI tools like ChatGPT for OpenAI. Our work involves watching murder and beheadings, child abuse and rape, pornography and bestiality, often for more than 8 hours a day. Many of us do this work for less than $2 per hour. 

These companies do not provide us with the necessary mental health care to keep us safe. As a result, many of us live and work with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We weren’t warned about the horrors of the work before we started.

Union busting is rife in the digital sector. When Facebook content moderators attempted to organize and form a union in Kenya – the entire workforce was sacked. Meta have now reportedly shifted all moderation work to Ghana to dodge accountability. 

The same happened to Kenyan workers labeling data for US AI startup ScaleAI in March 2024. ScaleAI’s outsourcing firm Remotasks left the African market overnight. Workers in Kenya instrumental in the development and training of their AI models were sacked with no notice, left unemployed and owed significant sums of unpaid wages. 

US tech giants consider themselves above Kenyan law. They ignore court orders. When Meta was ordered to pay Facebook moderators their salaries, the company ignored, and continues to ignore orders. A year after the ruling, the wages are still not being paid. 

Without our work these platforms would be unusable and companies like Meta would lose billions of dollars overnight, yet we are paid a fraction of what workers in the US earn.

This situation also threatens the safety and wellbeing of the users of these platforms. Numerous studies have shown skilled workers like us, with appropriate training and experience, and a nuanced understanding of local language and context, are crucial to effective moderation and labeling. Yet we are treated as disposable – when we ask for better pay and conditions we are sacked – and the knowledge and experience we have gathered in enabling these platforms to operate is thrown away. 

Mr President, we have read much about your commitment to labor rights and to “worker-centered trade”. That’s why we are writing to ask for your support. Again, we want more tech jobs from American companies in Kenya but these jobs cannot be jobs that destroy the lives of an entire generation.

You have said repeatedly that you care deeply about good jobs. You have the power to stop our exploitation by US companies, clean up this work and give us dignity and fair working conditions. In short, you can make sure there are good jobs for Kenyans too, not just Americans.

We should not have to sacrifice our health, our wellbeing and sadly, in some cases our lives for the profit margins of Big Tech. We urge you to take action and consider our requests carefully in these discussions and beyond.

Kind Regards,

1.         Abdi Mohamed Ali

2.         Abdiaziz Hussein Adan

3.         Abdiaziz Osman Adan

4.         Abdikadir Alio Guyo

5.         Abdirizak Muktar Ahmed

6.         Albert Labatt

7.         Alex Kairu

8.         Asha Abdirahim

9.         Bashir S Joda

10.       Berisa Tesfaye

11.       Bett Benard

12.       Bill Kelvin Mulinya

13.       Botlhokwa Ranta

14.       Caryn Pieterse

15.       Dare Samuel Arulogun

16.       David Kamau

17.       David Nkurunziza

18.       Dawit

19.       Emmanuel Ezekiel

20.       Endalew

21.       Esther Maingi

22.       Esther Michael

23.       Eutychus

24.       Felix Munde Ondigo

25.       Festus

26.       Frank Mugisha K.

27.       Frankline Maloba

28.       George Kipsang

29.       Gideon Panu

30.       Hussein Wako

31.       Ian Kem

32.       Ian Sulecha

33.       Ibrahim

34.       Ibrahim Galgallo

35.       James Oyange

36.       Jatani Hussein

37.       Joan Kinyua

38.       John Njoroge

39.       Joshua Juma

40.       Juanita Jones

41.       Karanja Njoroge

42.       Kauna Ibrahim Malgwi

43.       Kelvin Magu

44.       Kevin Owuor

45.       Kimurgor Koech

46.       Kings Korodi

47.       Koffi Iranyibutse

48.       Larson Abel

49.       Lawal Mohammad Shuaibu

50.       Lubega Edward

51.       Margaret

52.       Mark Agaba

53.       Mawerere Eric

54.       Meaza Shura

55.       Michael

56.       Mohamud Ahmed haji

57.       Mophat Okinyi

58.       Mubby

59.       Naftali Wambalo

60.       Nahom Tekeste

61.       Nathan Nkunzimana

62.       Odirile Moleboge

63.       Richard Mathenge

64.       Sani Muhammad Faisal

65.       Sausepeter Ojiambo

66.       Shukria Tifow

67.       Sonia Kgomo

68.       Ssengooba Oswald Allan

69.       Tikky Olang’o

70.       Trevin Brownie

71.       Waziri Chriz

72.       Yona Bedasa Debela

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