Facebook moderators in India were pressured to return to the office despite COVID-19 concerns

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Facebook moderators located in India were pressured by their employer, third-party contracting firm Genpact, to return to the office despite safety concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report from nonprofit publication Rest of World.

Genpact, one of many firms Facebook outsources moderation to around the world, employs roughly 1,600 moderators in India, where employees analyze offensive and disturbing content posted in large volumes to Facebook’s platforms for potential rule violations. The company was pressuring employees to return to its offices in Hyderabad as early as July, Rest of World reports, with Genpact claiming key parts of its moderation services had to be performed in the office due to privacy issues and other technical hurdles.

Genpact claims any in-office work was done so voluntarily. “To make this manageable, safe, and clear, employees need to sign a weekly form that asks them to voluntarily agree to this,” a Genpact spokesperson told Rest of World. But according to interviews with employees, Genpact management allegedly instructed some employees that their jobs may be at risk if they chose not to perform in-office duties.

Rest of World also reports that India’s IT industry was deemed essential in the earliest days of coronavirus-related lockdowns throughout the country. This meant many of the firms providing outsourced labor for US technology companies were able to circumvent restrictions on office work to keep employees coming in.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facebook employs more than 15,000 content moderators all around the globe, a vast majority of which are contractors without access to many of the same benefits as corporate employees. Those contractors are also subjected to work conditions involving the viewing of child exploitation, violence, terrorism videos, and other material that may cause post-traumatic stress disorder and related mental health issues.

Meanwhile, corporate Facebook employees are able to work from anywhere they like until July of next year, upon which they can choose to remain permanently remote so long as they agree to potential wage reduction depending on location. Corporate employees also receive benefits like stock options and a $1,000 stipend to cover remote work costs and office equipment, in addition to the free transportation and on-site food perks enjoyed prior to the pandemic.

Earlier this month, The Verge reported that one of Facebook’s primary moderation firms, the consulting firm Accenture, began instructing its US-based employees in Austin, Texas that they would have to return to the office despite concerns about COVID-19 safety precautions. Accenture initially refused to answer questions from employees worried about their health and safety, and the firm said it would not be providing increased pay.

In a statement emailed to The Verge at the time, Accenture wrote: “We are gradually returning people to client offices in cases where there is a critical business reason to do so. We prioritize the safety and well-being of our people, and only return people to offices when we are comfortable that the right measures and protocols are in place, properly evaluated for each country or local situation.”

Facebook says its moderators are still being paid regardless of how their jobs may be affected by COVID-19 safety measures, office closures and cleanings, and other work disruptions. But the company has been using financial incentives to get content moderators at third-party firms to resume working full time in the office, The Washington Post reported in May.

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