Spring 2021. It’s one o’ clock at night and the Internet is not working.

No big deal, I’m going to bed soon. But my tenant shows up at my door: it is a big deal to her. She works as a content moderator in Italian for a famous social media company, and tonight she has a night shift. She needs to do something, or she’ll be in trouble.

Restarting the router (and all that) proves ineffective, so I, as a landlady, am required to sign a letter certifying the Internet is down. I feel a bit like my mother did, back in Italy, when I was sick and she had to write an excuse note to my school. But there is nothing to laugh about: a few months earlier, the power was cut due to works down the street, and my tenant (who prefers to remain anonymous) would chase the workers and ask them to sign. I remember a man with a safety helmet, staring before him in obvious embarrassment while she insisted, kind but firm.

This time, instead, the lady borrows my phone, since she’s getting hers fixed: she needs to explain to the company why she is not online. So I start receiving several emails: first, the impatient instructions of a supervisor, on how to restart the router (which we were perfectly able to figure out by ourselves!), then a sequence of “Are you done?”, which gets no reply because no, connection is not being restored no matter what we try. Finally, my tenant snorts: “Fu*k them, then, I’m going to bed!”. The last mail, as I realised the next day, had arrived after two at night. That summer I catch my tenant in the act of moving from my flat, without notice. I am standing before the building at an unusual time for me, and I bump into her, carrying some of her stuff with a friend and babbling some confused explanation when she sees me. That very night she sends me a long message, in which she explains she needs to go, and she’s sorry for the five-day notice: she is not feeling well. She no longer wants to work for that company, so she won’t be able to pay the rent. She’ll crash for a while at her friend’s place. This is what I have experienced, from my position as a privileged observer. Finally, today, my former tenant has given me a more detailed account of her own experience as a content moderator. Here’s what she’s told me.

“We are about 2500 employees, we have 15 nations to moderate. Our net salary amounts to 1660 euros a month, to which we can add a night-shift bonus and a multiple-language bonus. So, depending on the month we can hit 1900 euros. Policy is updated every 2 weeks, so it is very difficult to evade. Its interpretation is often left to the ‘upper spheres’, especially if a famous user is violating it: one day, Italian politician Matteo Salvini used the term ‘zingaraccia’ (derogatory for gipsy, ed.), so he was clearly referring to an ethnicity in derogatory terms, but our supervisors ordered us not to intervene.

Let’s get to work conditions. We all accepted a contract which included different shifts, but the Spanish law establishes that fixed shifts cannot last more than 6 months. Instead, we have been facing the same shifts for 3 years. For 2 weeks, we work at night: during the first week we work 6 days over 7, and we also cover 9 hours on the weekend. We have an afternoon shift in the following 2 weeks, then a morning shift in the last 2 weeks. We have been often denied any holidays for unknown reasons (we suspect they wouldn’t be able to cover our hours). Same happened with the days off we gained by working on a bank holiday. We only could get a break in ‘dead’ months, such as November”. [Apart from the first two days, November is quite a dull month in Europe, ed.].

Moreover, during about 8 months between 2018 and 2019, we have been working up to 8 days without a break. For 6 months we could not be unionised. Since May 2018, when the project started, we never had an emergency drill, or a security plan to leave the building, which is situated in the Agbar Tower of Barcelona. To this day, we still can’t access the emergency staircase: we can only use the lifts.

Finally, in the summer of 2022 the Spanish authorities gave the company a 50.000-euro fine, and because of that the company is hiring new workers, but after two years of broken promises, and the end date of june to fix the shift situation, our pleas remain unanswered. We know our Filipino colleagues suffer even worse conditions: forced in offices without any natural light, they had to deal with the content in English, to save the company money. When their work was finally given to a US department, there was a class action, resulting in a 50.000-dollar compensation: not much, for the American healthcare.

In fact, it is a health problem we’re dealing with: we are worn out by the lack of days off, and by the appalling content we are forced to watch (I’ll talk about that in a bit). Also, we did not have proper psychological attention until we started presenting symptoms of PTSD. Before that, we had counsellors, who had us meditate and colour mandalas: a therapy which proved highly ineffective for most of us. Sadly, our team leaders tend to undermine the symptoms we report, because they have one main priority: our performance.

We are required to deal with a report every minute, and this average handling time is calculated to the second. Our clicks on other pages outside the social media platform (sometimes we attempt to google reportedly fake news) are not counted as working time.

Let’s talk about content. The most violent and disagreeable images would pop out before we started remote work. Now it is not happening as often, but we can still bump into a shocking video from time to time. We have witnessed animal tortures, especially in industrial farming or Chinese dog-meat festivals. However, many terrible scenes involved humans, such as hostages tortured by terrorists or drug cartels. I have witnessed the extractions of organs from people who were still alive. Also, we receive constant reports of online soliciting, and at some point the algorithm changed and we were increasingly exposed to child pornography.

Now, as I mentioned, we have been assigned some psychological help from licensed therapists, but what we really need is the possibility to rest. Our only option is applying for stress leave, as many senior moderators are. I believe that, in order to avoid PTSD, we shouldn’t ‘get fixed’ once we’ve watched perjudicial content: rather than having us talk to a therapist afterwards, they should have offered proper training in the first place. Instead, they did everything in economy: they hired fewer people than needed, in the shortest time possible, all the while keeping high expectations on our performance. This is not fair.

I mean, you don’t hire just anyone to make an autopsy!”.