Facebook moderators working for one of the company’s Dublin-based contractors are being forced to go into the office, even as Ireland returns to its highest tier of Covid lockdown, after their employer categorised them as “essential workers”.
Staff with personal shielding requirements are exempt from the order, but those with high-risk family members at home have been told by the contractor, CPL, that they are still required in the office.
Facebook announced in August that it’s own employees were allowed to work remotely until July 2021 and they were given $1,000 (£765) towards setting up at home. However, for their moderators, who review the millions of reports flagged to them by Facebook users and are predominantly employed through third-party contractors, the generous perks do not exist.
“People are feeling that they’re being exploited,” said one moderator, who asked to remain anonymous because they had signed a non-disclosure agreement. “Facebook themselves, they are making almost all their employees work from home. Even people working in the same team, on the same project as us – we’re doing the same work – Facebook is letting them work from home and not us.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Facebook said some of its moderation work would have to be done in the office because of safeguarding concerns. Moderators working on sensitive topics, such as terrorism or self-harm, were not allowed to do so from home amid concerns for their mental health while working on such material in isolation.
But when CPL recalled staff to the office in July, as the Irish lockdown eased, it did so for everyone, regardless of the topics they were working on. And now, despite the government introducing level 5 restrictions, which require people to work from home “unless you are providing an essential service for which your physical presence is required”, the Facebook moderators have been told they must stay in the office.
“Your role involves ensuring the safety of online communities and the internet,” moderators were told. “The provision of services necessary to deliver and support … communications activities is an essential role. The company has concluded that your job cannot be undertaken from home.”
When staff returned to the office in July, they were told it would be closed for 72 hours if there was a confirmed Covid case. Since the end of September, there have been three such cases, according to emails sent to staff, but the office has not closed.
In a statement, CPL said: “Our employees carry out extremely important work, keeping the Facebook platform safe. They are positively contributing to society in the work that they do in ensuring the safety of our online communities, and their roles are deemed essential.
“The health and safety of our employees is our top priority and we review each employee’s situation on a case-by-case basis. Our employees work in a state of the art office which is operating at 25% capacity to facilitate strict social distancing. We are providing private transport to and from the office, so employees do not need to take public transport.”
A Facebook spokesperson said: “Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, we’ve worked to keep both our workforce and the people who use our platforms safe. In recent months, our partners have started to bring some content reviewers back to offices to support review of content related to real-world harm like child safety.
“Our focus has always been on how this content review can be done in a way that keeps our reviewers safe. Any reviewer who is considered vulnerable will continue to work from home and other situations are being considered on a case-by-case basis. We are also working with our partners to ensure strict health and safety measures are in place and any confirmed cases of illness are disclosed.”
Asked in the Dáil about CPL’s requirement for the moderators to work from the office, Leo Varadkar, the Irish tánaiste (deputy prime minister) and minister for enterprise, trade and employment, said: “Any employee who feels that their health and safety, or employment rights, have been breached has recourse to the industrial mechanisms of the state.”