Kenyan workers who trained OpenAI’s ChatGPT have petitioned the country’s National Assembly to investigate troubling working conditions at companies like Sama, to whom companies like Google, Meta, and OpenAI outsource their content moderation and AI work.
“On behalf of the young Kenyans whose lives have been ruined because they did the dirty work training the ChatGPT algorithm, we have filed a petition to [the Kenyan National Assembly] to investigate how OpenAI and Sama got away with such exploitation and to urgently regulate tech work,” Mercy Sumbi, a digital rights advocate and litigator, said on Twitter.
The petition describes disturbing conditions in which Kenyan workers were offered temporary contracts by Sama (known as Samasource until 2021) that did not sufficiently describe the nature of their jobs. Once hired, workers were allegedly expected to view and categorize material that depicted sexual and graphic violence — including bestiality, necrophilia, incestuous sexual violence, sexual harm of minors, self-harm, suicide, torture and rape — so that ChatGPT could learn to recognize the content in preparation for its future engagement with users. The workers were not provided with psychological support and developed serious mental health issues from engaging with the content, including PTSD, paranoia, depression and anxiety.
“Quite literally the fortunes of Big Tech are currently built on the broken backs and minds of African youth,” Sumbi wrote on Twitter.
An investigative report conducted by Time in January found that these workers were paid less than US $2.00 an hour to do this work, or a maximum wage of $170 a month. “That was torture,” an anonymous Sama worker told Time about being tasked with reading and labeling text depicting bestiality. “You will read a number of statements like that all through the week. By the time it gets to Friday, you are disturbed from thinking through that picture.”
Top management in Big Tech companies such as Microsoft were allegedly aware of the traumatic nature of the work they had outsourced to Kenya, according to a whistleblower.
“There will be scary moments as we move towards AGI-level systems, and significant disruptions, but the upsides can be so amazing that it’s well worth overcoming the great challenges to get there,” OpenAI chief Sam Altman wrote on Twitter in December 2022.
The nature of the work — and its effect on Kenyan workers — led Sama to abruptly cancel its contract with OpenAI in February 2022, eight months earlier than planned.
The petition is a call to action not only for the National Assembly to investigate the exploitation that workers have experienced at the hands of Sama and American tech companies, but also to enact legislation to regulate tech work in the country to protect workers.
“We must have honest conversations around the tech work being done in Kenya on behalf of Big Tech,” said Sumbi. “We want to be the country of choice for Big Tech but at what cost? If they’re not taking all the necessary precautions to protect the workers, that’s exploitation not investment.”
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