Content moderators are now required by subcontractor Accenture to sign an ‘acknowledgement’ form, according to reports from The Verge
In December 2019, The Verge published a report about content moderation at an Accenture site in Austin, Texas.
Here, hundreds of moderators work on behalf of Google and YouTube to try and rid the platforms of content containing harassment, pornography, violent extremism and material that goes against copyright policies.
The Verge claimed that staff were facing undue stress, with one collapsing at work in distress, others experiencing panic attacks and a number of employees being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which has stayed with them after they left their moderation roles.
Accenture’s new ‘acknowledgement’ documents
Last week, The Verge reported that days after this investigation was published, Accenture distributed a document to YouTube content moderators, which they were “ordered” to sign.
The document read: “I understand the content I will be reviewing may be disturbing. It is possible that reviewing such content may impact my mental health, and it could even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I will take full advantage of the WeCare programme and seek additional mental health services if needed. I will tell my supervisor or my HR people advisor if I believe that the work is negatively affecting my mental health.”
Concerns from labour attorneys
The Verge suggested that this document “seeks to make employees responsible for monitoring changes to their mental health”, and orders them to disclose any negative changes to a supervisor or member of HR.
The document also said that “this job is not for everyone”. Casey Newton, author of the article on The Verge, said: “This language suggests that employees who experience mental health struggles as a result of their work do not belong at Accenture.
“It does not state that Accenture will make reasonable accommodations to employees who become disabled on the job, as required by federal law. Labour attorneys told The Verge that this language could be construed to suggest that employees may be terminated for becoming disabled, which would be illegal.”
While Accenture said that the signing of the document is voluntary, Newton said that he spoke to two employees who were told that they could be fired if they refused to sign the document.
The document reportedly adds that strict adherence to all requirements is “mandatory” and “failure to meet the requirements would amount to serious misconduct and for Accenture employees may warrant disciplinary action up to and including termination”.
The multinational professional services firm told The Verge that employees are not being asked to disclose disabilities or medical conditions. Accenture refused to disclose when it became aware that some workers were being diagnosed with PTSD after moderating YouTube content.
The company did not state how many individuals have been affected, nor did it mention whether it intended to use signatures on this document as a legal defence in any cases it faces regarding the impact that sensitive content has on workers.
An Accenture spokesperson told The Verge: “The wellbeing of our people is a top priority. We regularly update the information we give our people to ensure that they have a clear understanding of the work they do – and of the industry-leading wellness programme and comprehensive support services we provide.”
A similar acknowledgement form was issued to content moderators working on behalf of Facebook at a European Accenture facility, according to the Financial Times. The company has at least three content moderation sites in Europe, including Dublin, Lisbon and Warsaw.
In a comment to the Financial Times, Accenture said: “Although targeted at new joiners, the document was also reissued to existing personnel, but there are no consequences for not signing the updated document.”
Content moderation in Ireland
While Accenture provides companies such as Facebook and YouTube with content moderation services, it is not the only company in the spotlight for how contractors are affected by what they witness on the job.
In September 2019, the Personal Injuries Assessment Board gave a group of former content moderators in Ireland the go-ahead to serve proceeding against Facebook in the High Court, after they were hired by third-party outsourcing company CPL.
Former CPL employee Sean Burke told Vice that on his first day he had to watch videos of someone being brutally beaten and stabbed multiple times. He added that he now has “psychological trauma” as a result of the working conditions and “a lack of proper training”.
Commenting on the acknowledgement form being issued by Accenture, Cori Crider, the director of UK-based litigation non-profit Foxglove, said: “Now we see it in black and white: Big Tech knows full well that content moderation causes PTSD in workers.
“The question is, when are Google and Facebook going to clean up their unsafe factory floor? Pushing responsibility onto the individual worker, as this document tries to do, won’t cut it. It’s on them to make their workplace safe.”