Content moderators for platforms like Facebook and Instagram have one of the most gruesome jobs on social media, monitoring illegal, violent and harmful content, often working long shifts and for low pay.
These workers are now leading the charge for better working conditions and pressuring platforms that have largely failed to recognize formal union representation.
A group of workers in Germany last week drafted a list of labor standards for the job, giving workers the right to bargain collectively and join unions or works councils.
“We are confident that this is just the beginning,” said Hikmat El-Hammouri of Germany’s Verdi trade union. “More and more content moderators are now joining us and learning about the power they can gain from unions and works councils.
“For too long, the big social media companies have acted as if they didn’t have to answer to the labor movement in Germany. You’re about to get a big wake-up call.”
Against a backdrop of brutal job losses across the tech sector, many workers have been reluctant to demand better rights.
“People are afraid of retaliation and, with recent layoffs, worried they can’t organize as it could affect their employment,” said a TikTok employee.
Hikmat El-Hammouri from the German trade union Verdi: “Big social media companies have acted as if they do not have to answer to the labor movement in Germany. You’re about to get a big wake up call’ © Christian von Polentz
But deteriorating conditions and higher living costs are spurring workers to stand up to their managers and employers.
“Workers are starting to talk more about unionization. . . it’s an example of exposing the rosy futuristic world of work that tech companies were trying to project,” said Bruce Daisley, former Twitter European vice president and now workplace culture advisor.
However, he warned: “The increasing downsizing means there is very little leverage for workers to organize.”
TikTok’s employment contracts contain a clause that prohibits employees from discussing their salaries with each other, which they understand as a measure to prevent fair and equal pay.
TikTok said it fully supports workers’ rights and abides by “collective labor rules, including in relation to unions.”
According to jobs website Glassdoor, the average content moderator salary in the UK is around £25,000 a year. Content moderators hired by third-party companies report that they are paid close to minimum wage and are often handed the most disturbing footage. Social networks like Meta, TikTok and YouTube use external contractors to carry out this work.
“We’re treated like machines, not people,” said a moderator who reviews meta-content through a third-party company. He said he was suffering from health issues after being repeatedly exposed to terrorist and suicide content on the platforms.
“I thought the job would never affect me, but after a while it started to affect my mental health. At first it was a lot of bad dreams, and then I got a lot of troubling physical symptoms.”
Among the demands listed by the German Moderator Collective is a demand for independent and qualified psychosocial support for moderators. Workers are sometimes asked to sign waivers specifically acknowledging the health risks of their job.
Meta said the third-party companies it uses are required to pay above industry standards and it audits them twice a year. These companies must provide 24/7 on-site support with trained doctors and access to private healthcare, the company added.
A former TikTok moderator slammed the support: “They have yoga videos and stretches you can do, [and] random people you can go to who aren’t properly qualified and it’s not even confidential.”
TikTok said it provides psychological support to all content moderators, including independent and qualified mental health support.
How staff are monitored internally was another issue, with moderators for TikTok and Meta telling the FT their work is closely tracked, including how many seconds it takes to review each piece of content.
“The process gave me a headache as I had to review about 1,000 videos a day,” said the former TikTok host. “The system tracks every second of our activity [and] We are judged on our performance. . . Prioritizing speed over quality.”
Another former TikTok host said even if the content was harmless, it was very repetitive and would cause viral songs to constantly get stuck in her head and interfere with her sleep.
Meta and TikTok employees have introduced formal employee representation in offices in Europe through works councils, legally enforceable bodies that exist for larger companies to represent employees on issues such as wages, hours and working conditions.
Franziska, chair of the German TikTok works council set up in late 2022, said they had negotiated remote working up to three times a week and a monthly co-payment of 50 euros for employees working from home.
She is broadly positive about the measures TikTok has put in place for content moderators, but thinks they should be paid better.
“Although the social media companies will state that content moderation is the front line and the most important element in these companies, this is not reflected in the payment,” she said.
“We are doing this to not only protect children and users on the platform, but also . . . We also protect freedom of speech and democracy and protect people from misinformation. It is actually a very important cog in this world that is not respected as it should be.”