Wednesday, 16 December 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I wish to raise a serious issue today, namely, the work of social media content moderators. These people carry out a new form of work which is horrific in nature but regrettably is essential. On a daily basis, these workers will view and filter out the worst acts of humanity posted online in order that they do not appear on our screens. This is done through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It may come as a surprise to the Minister of State that approximately 2,000 workers in Dublin are working in these horrific jobs. The positions are outsourced, insecure and low-paid. They are doing the worst of work to protect us, but unfortunately, this comes at a cost to their own mental health. They are subject to serious psychological damage and injury due to being exposed to explicit content during the course of their everyday work.
We need to address the problems of these workers, as we now know this is causing post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and other psychological damage to many of those workers exposed to this type of content. A month ago, an open letter was published from more than 200 Facebook moderators, including well over 100 workers based in Dublin, that was addressed to the CEO of Facebook, as well as the chief executives of the recruitment company CPL and of Accenture. In this letter, Facebook content moderators wrote to "express our dismay at your decision to risk our lives - and the lives of our colleagues and loved ones - to maintain Facebook's profits during the pandemic". Another line from that letter stated the moderators did:
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.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, said in the Dáil last month that this work is essential and he recognised that it has to be done. He stated that if there is any problem, employees should contact the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, and that he believed no such complaints had been made. To be frank, this is not good enough. It suggests that no problem exists, when in fact, we know that major problems exist. The reality is that these are agency workers on low pay, and in making complaints, they could see themselves risking their jobs.
Earlier this year a reported settlement of €52 million was made in a court case in which it was alleged that Facebook failed to protect workers tasked with moderating disturbing content from the grave mental health aspects of the job. More than 11,000 people who have worked as moderators for Facebook in the US will qualify for compensation under the settlement agreement. A 2019 report from The Vergefound that workers were paid as little as $28,000 per year, and I can tell the House that the rate of pay in Ireland is just €14.36 per hour. That is what these workers get paid for watching thousands of horrific videos each day, with very little mental health support.
There is another key issue here that must be addressed. Why are these jobs being outsourced? Facebook is the second or third most valuable and profitable company in the world. Yet it has chosen to outsource these essential roles to agencies and to pay the workers a distinctly low rate of pay for the horrific work that they do. From what I can see, they are effectively being treated as yellow-pack workers. Someone in the Government must recognise that this is not right. This is fundamentally wrong. I dread to imagine how horrific this work is. Indeed, one of these workers had to go home and explain to their families that they could not discuss their work with them. As this will be a "Prime Time" exposé in years to come, the response of the Minister of State to this issue will be very important. I ask him not to provide a regular Civil Service response. I ask him to tell us what the Government will do to actively engage on this issue to protect these vulnerable workers and to ensure that something changes fundamentally for them.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter. First, I wish to state there is a strong legislative regime in Ireland to protect all workers in respect of their working conditions, including work-related health and safety. On the issue of general working conditions, there is a comprehensive body of employment rights legislation for which the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, is mandated to secure compliance. This legislation protects all employees who are legally employed on a contract of service basis. Where an individual believes he or she is being deprived of employment rights applicable to employees, that individual may refer a complaint to the WRC where the matter can be dealt with by way of mediation or adjudication leading to a decision, enforceable through the District Court. WRC inspectors can also be asked to investigate certain breaches. Complaints can be made on a single online complaint form available on the WRC's website, www.workplacerelations.ie.
In respect of the health and safety of workers specifically, we have a suite of workplace health and safety legislation designed to prevent and mitigate against work-related accidents and injuries. In this regard, social media content moderators should be treated by an employer in the same way as any other worker who is potentially exposed to hazards. The employer must ensure that appropriate training is provided and must carry out a risk assessment with a particular focus on potential hazards for the worker and must prepare a safety statement based on this risk assessment. A written safety statement should include an assessment of all hazards and risks and should set out how the safety and health of all employees will be protected. Proper risk assessment, along with mitigation measures, is the foundation for all workplace health and safety.
The HSA has an extensive range of advisory and guidance material available to employers to assist them in identifying and managing specific workplace hazards and risks. In addition, any content moderator concerned about his or her health and safety arising from the manner in which his or her work is organised can contact the authority, in confidence, for advice.
The Senator asked what protections are available for those working as content moderators. Where a social media company outsources work such as content moderation to another company, that company is responsible for the totality of the employment relationship with the employees that do the content moderation work. This means that the company has the same employer obligations under both employment rights and health and safety legislation as any other employer. Also, content moderators have access to the services of State bodies, such as the WRC and the HSA.
I am genuinely very disappointed by that response. I am a former trade union official and the Minister of State has spent the last four minutes reciting the current employment law protections. Respectfully, I am aware of them. The problem is that the protections in place are not working in respect of these content moderators. There is no right to collective bargaining in this country, which undermines much of the collective protections that are currently in law.
Another line from the workers' letter that was published states:
The current crisis highlights that at the core of Facebook’s business lies a deep hypocrisy. By outsourcing our jobs, Facebook implies that the 35,000 of us [2,000 in Dublin] who work in moderation are somehow peripheral to social media. Yet we are so integral to Facebook’s viability that we must risk our lives to come into work.
The simple call of these workers is for the practice of outsourcing to be ended.
The Government needs to engage on this issue. What is happening in our city at the moment is nothing short of scandalous. I ask the Minister of State to at least give a commitment that the Government will immediately engage with Facebook, and bring in the company to ask it why it is outsourcing these positions. It is fundamentally wrong and it is immoral.
First, I again note there is a strong legislative regime in place in Ireland to protect all workers in respect of their working conditions, including work-related health and safety. However, I urge these employees to engage, in the first instance, with their employer to see how their concerns can be resolved at workplace level. Second, my colleague, the Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, who is responsible for media policy, including online safety legislation, is currently advancing a regulatory framework that will deal with online safety.
Lastly, the Tánaiste stated, in response to a priority question on Tuesday, 20 November, that "content moderators working for social media platforms play an important role in preventing the wider distribution of explicit content on these platforms". He has said that he is willing to meet these workers and-or their representatives to hear first hand any particular health and safety concerns they might have associated with the work they carry out.