Contractor Of The Month: Facebook forces moderators into the office

November 15, 2020

Category:

3 min read

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What's going on here?

A certain category of Facebook workers in Dublin have been told they must work in the office, despite Ireland returning to its strictest level of lockdown measures.

What does this mean?

On 21 October 2020, the Republic of Ireland became the first European country to enter a second national lockdown, beginning a six-week period of “level 5 restrictions” just shy of those first imposed in March. Compared to the UK, the measures include a 3-mile radius from which individuals can travel from their own household, with exemptions for essential work or purposes.

CPLa contractor firm – has classed the role of the content moderators it supplies to Facebook as ‘essential’, and so have instructed them to remain working in Facebook’s office. An essential worker is typically one whose physical presence is needed to provide critical services and infrastructure such as healthcare, transport, food and government, among other public functions (applying ejusdem generis, of course). CPL asserts the content moderators “carry out extremely important work, keeping the Facebook platform safe”, thereby deeming their role as essential on the grounds that it is “positively contributing to society.” 

Arguably, this interpretation of ‘essential’ conflicts with the Irish government’s guidance that those who can work from home (WFH) must do so. And yet, Facebook’s contractors (workers provided by a third-party) have been told their presence is still required in the Dublin office.

What's the big picture effect?

In fairness, CPL has accounted for the health risks to contractors: those with shielding requirements are exempt, the office remains at 25% capacity to ensure social distancing can be practised, and there are private transport arrangements to ensure nobody uses public transport. Facebook has also stated that due to concerns of reviewing sensitive/distressing content at home in isolation, working in the office is also a safeguarding measure for content moderators. Both these physical and mental health aspects seemingly go beyond the minimum workplace safety standards mandated in law from CPL as the employer. So from an objective standpoint, there is no cause for concern.

But what makes this story controversial is that Facebook employees face no equivalent limitations at all. In fact, Facebook has confirmed its own employees have the option to WFH until at least July 2021 while also giving $1000 or currency equivalent (£765) towards their home office setups. This is not the first time that Dublin’s tech firms have been the subject of scrutiny during the pandemic either. Back in March, both Facebook and Google were exposed for not providing their contractors with the same WFH privileges as direct employees, and for failing to implement adequate protective measures.

Discrepancies in the perks and provisions for Facebook employees versus contractors is made more stark given that contractors are often on the same team and projects as employees, effectively undertaking the same work but still being denied the WFH option. As a result, legal teams could consider whether contractors have a claim for unfair workplace treatment.

This opens up discussions concerning Duty of Care. What do employers owe their workers in light of working with Covid-19? The subsequent question is who then holds this duty of care and thus responsibility for the moderators: Facebook or CPL. The difficulty here is the employment status the workers have to begin with, as it is accepted that employees are entitled to greater rights than any other type of employment status. 

Although this particular news story should be considered within the Irish government’s measures, it does prompt debate into what legacy Covid-19 will have for the workplace in general. This article has focused on when workers are required to be in the workplace, yet the flipside is what obligations do employers have to care for staff remaining at home, and how will WFH be governed in the future?

The current legislation is admittedly rushed and temporary. Nevertheless, rational profit-seeking employers will seek to weave guidance so it fits the present needs of their workforce, and ultimately to their business advantage.

The response on this story so far from Leo Varadkar – the Irish deputy and minister for enterprise, trade and employment – is that “any employee who feels that their health and safety, or employment rights, have been breached has recourse to the industrial mechanisms of the state.” Employee again becomes the key term. For now, at least the onus remains on Facebook’s Irish contractors to fight for equal employment rights by themselves…

Report written by Seb Stacey

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