Microsoft-Backed ChatGPT Outsourced Content Moderation To Kenyan Workers At Below $2/Hour, Investigation Finds

Zinger Key Points
  • ChatGPT Parent OpenAI roped in Sama to hire laborers in Kenya to label text-based abuse, hate speech and violence.
  • Workers were paid a basic salary of $170 per month by Sama.
  • Staff were reportedly made to read between 150 and 250 passages per nine-hour shift, according to the report.

ChatGPT creator OpenAI reportedly used Kenyan laborers for less than $2 per hour to make its artificial intelligence-powered chatbot less toxic.

What Happened: In order to sniff out toxic language, the AI needed to be fed samples of violence, hate speech, and sexual abuse so that such instances could be filtered out using an inbuilt detector, reported TIME.

To get those labels, OpenAI reportedly sent thousands of text snippets to an outsourcing company in Kenya starting in November 2021, with examples that included child sexual abuse, bestiality, murder, and suicide.

OpenAI’s outsourcing partner was reportedly named Sama, a San Francisco-based company that employs workers in Kenya, Uganda, and India. It also works with tech giants such as Alphabet Inc's GOOGL (NASDAQ GOOG) Google, social media goliath Meta Platforms Inc META, and Microsoft Corporation MSFT, as per TIME.

OpenAI reportedly signed three contracts worth $200,000 with Sama to label text-based descriptions of abuse, hate speech, and violence. 

Three dozen workers were split into three teams, with each focusing on one subject. Three employees told TIME they were expected to read and label hundreds of passages in a nine-hour shift. 

“We take the mental health of our employees and those of our contractors very seriously,” an OpenAI spokesperson was quoted as saying by TIME.

The company said its “previous understanding" was wellness programs and 1:1 counseling were offered to workers and that they could “opt out of any work without penalization.”

OpenAI did not immediately respond to Benzinga’s request for comment.

See Also: How To Invest In Tech Startups

Why It Matters: Microsoft is reportedly negotiating a $10 billion investment in OpenAI, which would value the company at $29 billion. In 2019, the Satya Nadella-led company invested $1 billion in OpenAI.

Four employees interviewed by TIME said they were mentally scarred by the work even though they could potentially attend sessions with wellness counselors, according to the report.

The most junior laborers were reportedly paid a basic salary of 21,000 KES ($170) per month and received a monthly bonus of nearly $70.

TIME reported that agents working nine-hour shifts could take home a minimum of $1.32 per hour after tax, with pay rising as high as $1.44 per hour if they exceeded their targets.

Senior laborers, termed quality analysts, could take home up to $2 per hour if they met their targets.

According to the report, a Sama spokesperson said workers were asked to label 70 text passages per nine-hour shift and could earn between $1.46 and $3.74 per hour after taxes. 

OpenAI said it did not issue any productivity targets and Sama was responsible for managing workers' payment and mental health provisions.

Sama told Benzinga in an email that it canceled the OpenAI pilot program after three months following employees raising concerns about the content.

"After we ended the contract, most of the employees were moved to computer vision data annotation projects and the associated standard wages," Sama said, adding that employees working on the OpenAI project were provided both group and individual wellness counseling.

On the subject of the pay scale, Sama said it paid workers between 26,600 KSH and 45,000 KSH per month, "which works out to between $1.46 and $3.74 per hour after taxes, but before bonuses, incentives and benefits."

"To compare it to US wages is a false equivalent that mischaracterizes the situation. A comparative Western wage would be between $30 and $45 per hour," it added. 

Sama said it would exit all content moderation work by March.

Fallout: The TIME report tracked the ups and downs in the relationship between OpenAI and Sama, which fell apart over images related to child sexual abuse in a separate project.

Sama’s decision to stop working with OpenAI meant employees had to work on lower-paying workstreams minus the $70 explicit content bonus, while some staff lost their work.

Since the contract between the two companies ended early, OpenAI told TIME the contract was worth $150,000 throughout its entirety. 

It should be noted that Sama is the same company that Facebook used for content moderation. Employees were paid as little as $1.50 per hour for moderating content linked to the social media app.

Read Next: Meta's African Content Moderation Partner Closes Down Operations

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