Big Tech’s Factory Floor

Apr 22, 2021 | tech ethics

Conversations about the impacts of our relationship with technology have so far missed out one very important group – Big Tech’s own employees. A growing movement of workers at the very bottom of the heap of the shiny tech companies we all use; Amazon’s warehouse workers, Facebook’s content moderators, Uber’s drivers, are calling for changes in the often shocking working conditions they endure, and demanding better workers’ rights and pay.

At the beginning of January this year, some Google workers announced they were forming a union. Their move was just the latest in a growing battle at Big Tech companies, which goes way beyond wages and perks into an examination of the ethical issues arising from what many of them are expected to do in their jobs.

FACEBOOK CONTENT MODERATORS

I interviewed lawyer and activist Cori Crider from Foxglove for my podcast ‘It’s Complicated’ this season, on the work Foxglove are doing to support Facebook content moderators who endure particularly shocking working conditions.

Most Facebook users are not aware that the job of checking and removing offensive content from Facebook (and many other platforms), is not automated or performed by sophisticated AI. In fact, it’s a role which requires thousands of human moderators watching hundreds of hours of offensive, dangerous and often harrowing content – then flagging and removing it from the platform, in order to keep users safe.

There are an estimated 15,000 Facebook content moderators working around the world, in conditions of extreme secrecy and for the large part not working directly for Facebook itself, but sub-contracted through a variety of 3rd party companies (such as Cognizant and Accenture). This contractor status means, not only are the moderators performing more dangerous work than full-time employees, but they are not the beneficiaries of the often lavish salaries and perks of their full-time counterparts. One investigation found that US moderators in Phoenix, Arizona will make just $28,800 per year — while the average Facebook employee has a total compensation of $240,000.

Whistle-blowing content moderators have described working in conditions of extreme stress and trauma, developing symptoms of PTSD from the sheer volume and content of the material they have to view, and being unsupported by their employers when they inevitably develop serious mental health conditions.

the factory floor for Big Tech

AMAZON WAREHOUSE WORKERS

Another forgotten group of Big Tech stakeholders, Amazon’s warehouse workers, had a particularly bad pandemic and Amazon is now under investigation in at least one US state – California, for failing to protect them during the coronavirus outbreak, with claims that the company had put workers at “needless risk” by having them share equipment, such as freezer suits, and not allowing extra time in order to respect social distancing.

Amazon had previously come under fire for the claim that their warehouse workers endure almost ’19th century cotton mill’ working environments with employees claiming they were fired for speaking out about poor working conditions. One recently dismissed worker claimed at public meetings and in comments to the news media, that Amazon required him and other workers to work 12-hour shifts five or even six times a week with few breaks during the peak holiday season, and that warehouse managers had unreasonable production targets.

‘Picking’ products off shelves in Amazon’s warehouses is the most common warehouse role and pickers walk miles a day in search of items. One whistle-blower claims that average picker’s targets of around 100 items per hour have been raised to a target of around 300 or 400 to fulfil customer demand at peak times. As with the case of content moderators, many Amazon customers believe this job is largely automated by robots in warehouses, but in reality there are still thousands of human pickers employed.

WHAT CAN BIG TECH USERS AND CUSTOMERS DO?

Cori Crider, in my interview with her, has a very good analogy for how we should all feel about the plight of Big Tech’s hidden workers saying; “If you wouldn’t buy a t-shirt from a sweatshop you should be thinking twice about using some of these apps and products.”

At the very least, we can be encouraging greater awareness of the price certain sections of the population are paying for our increased reliance on the shiny apps of Silicon Valley. And we can be adding our voices to those demanding fairer and more humane working conditions for them.

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