Mental abuse
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - August 7, 2019 - 12:00am

OFWs and BPO workers are the two legs supporting our economy. That’s important because manufacturing and agriculture, the two other legs, have been under performing.

 But the work of OFWs and BPO workers expose them to serious, even life-threatening dangers. Indeed, OFWs can end up murdered or seriously beaten up, but our government has taken steps to deal with that.

 Unfortunately for our BPO workers, some of them are suffering in silence. Those involved in the horrible job of cleaning up social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter suffer the digital equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

 There is this excellent piece of investigative reporting by a team of The Washington Post on the mental abuse some of our BPO workers suffer. “Facebook and Twitter see the worst of the web – and suffer silently,” is the title of the report.

 The blurb summarizes: Social media giants have tasked a workforce of contractors with reviewing suicides and massacres to decide if such content should remain online – and protect the firms’ reputations.”

 They are called content moderators. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, among other social media platforms, are subcontracting the task of cleaning up their sites to workers in among other countries, the Philippines.

 One content moderator The Post focused on is a Filipino named Lester. “A year after quitting his job reviewing some of the most gruesome content the internet has to offer, Lester prays every week that the images he saw can be erased from his mind.”

 Lester worked first as a contractor for YouTube and then for Twitter. He spent up to nine hours each day looking at images and deciding “whether a child’s genitals were being touched accidentally or on purpose, or whether a knife slashing someone’s neck depicted a real-life killing — and if such content should be allowed online.”

 The Post reports that Lester is haunted by what he sees. Even entering a tall building triggers flashbacks to the suicides he reviewed, causing him to entertain the possibility of jumping.

“At night, he Googles footage of bestiality and incest — material he was never exposed to before, but now is ashamed that he is drawn to. For the last year, he has visited a mall chapel every week, where he works with a church brother to ask God to ‘white out’ those images from his memory.”

The Post reports that because a wide ocean separates Manila from Silicon Valley, our workers are vulnerable to exploitation. According to The Post, workers told them “the companies do not provide adequate support to address the psychological consequences of the work.

“They said that they cannot confide in friends because the confidentiality agreements they signed prevent them from doing so… The vulnerability of content moderators is most acute in the Philippines, one of the biggest and fastest-growing hubs of such work …

“Several moderators call themselves silent heroes of the internet, protecting Americans from the ills of their own society… In interviews with The Washington Post, 14 current and former moderators in Manila described a workplace where nightmares, paranoia, and obsessive ruminations were common consequences of the job.

“Several described seeing colleagues suffer mental breakdowns at their desks. One of them said he attempted suicide as a result of the trauma.”

According to The Post, “a Facebook counselor acknowledged a form of PTSD known as vicarious trauma could be a consequence of the work…”

Unlike Facebook and Google contractors in the US who “view the job as a stepping stone to a potential career in the tech industry, Filipino workers view the dead-end job as one of the best they can get.”

Sylvia Estrada-Claudio, dean of the College of Social Work and Community Development at the University of the Philippines, who has counseled workers in the call-center industry, told The Post she worries about a generation of young people exposed to such disturbing material.

Content moderators, The Post reports, have no control over what he or she was going to see — whether the feed would show him an Islamic State murder or a child being forced into sex with an animal…”

Asked to estimate the number of violent images he saw over the course of eight months of reviewing Twitter and YouTube content, a Filipino content moderator said ‘Too many to count.’”

Lester estimates that he reviewed roughly 10 murders a month. He reviewed at least 1,000 pieces of content related to suicide, he said…

 “After a while, Lester noticed that his work was beginning to take a toll on his well-being… He said he could not afford mental health treatment and didn’t seek it. At the same time, he was ashamed and disturbed to discover that some of the new sexual imagery to which he was being exposed aroused him.

 “He quit in 2015 after three months, and he attempted suicide the following year in a motel room, reenacting a scene he had reviewed the year before. His friends talked him down over the phone. ‘If I had stayed in that job, I’d be dead right now,’” he said.

 “Some moderators in the Philippines said they never encountered a counselor at work. Some said they had access to a counselor once a month or once every six months, while moderators in the United States say they can book time with a counselor once a week.”

 I think the Department of Labor should look into the psychological health of our workers in BPO companies handling content moderation for social media platforms. That is part of DOLE’s responsibility. It is pretty much the same as making sure factories have safety programs to safeguard lives and health of employees.

 Perhaps Congress should pass a law mandating unlimited access to in-person counseling to content moderators, at all hours and also provide counseling options after workers leave the job.

 “People think, because we’re Filipinos, we are happy people. We can adapt,” Lester said. “But this stays in our heads forever. . .”

 Mental abuse of our BPO workers is as bad as physical abuse of our OFWs.

 Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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