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Did Facebook treat contractors unfairly?

Subcontractors at Facebook Reality Labs protest against working conditions

Just before Christmas, a small number of people working for a Facebook subcontractor claim that they were offered an ultimatum – accept a new offer of pay and benefits or face unemployment.

The stand-off came about after employees of Filter Digital, which acts as a subcontractor for Facebook Reality Labs, got together to demand improved working conditions. While Facebook has now stepped in and Filter Digital has since denied its actions were meant to be a threat, questions as to how the situation came to be are still being asked.

Facebook Reality Labs (which was previously known as Oculus Research), employs a range of research assistants and program coordinators from Filter Digital. Based in Seattle in the US, the organisation is involved in creating innovative virtual reality products. The contractors work alongside full-time Facebook staff, although they do not necessarily share the same employment benefits.

Feelings of inequality came to a head in early December, prompting some Filter Digital workers to write a letter to their management team, asking for improved employee rights. They claimed their current working terms meant that they have had supplement their income with second jobs, and that some cannot easily pay for medical care or rent.

The workers also felt that it was particularly unfair that while Facebook shuts its premises for 11 holidays over the year, Filter Digital recognises just five of those days, meaning workers have to use their limited holiday days to make up the rest, or receive no pay. They also demanded pay for time taken off ill and an increase in salary.

By making these requests as a group, the workers entered into ‘collective bargaining’ which is regulated in the US and provides some legal protection for employees when protesting. Allegedly, Facebook full-time workers were behind their subcontractor colleagues and felt that they should all enjoy the same working conditions.

However, in an email response, it is claimed that Filter Digital informed the workers that they would offer new benefits, but if individuals did not accept them in a given time period, they would take it that they no longer wished to work for the company. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Filter Digital employees felt the offer was insufficient and there was considerable anger about the use of an ultimatum.

It was at this point that Facebook stepped in, after being alerted to the situation. Separately, Joe Melanson, Filter Digital’s CEO, instructed his HR team to go back to employees to reassure them that the communication sent was not meant to be seen as a threat.

Since then, Filter Digital has promised to begin offering the same holiday as Facebook, in addition to making further alterations to salary and benefits. While it remains to be seen whether these changes will be satisfactory for the disgruntled workers, it certainly shows the power of employees working together to raise issues.

The question of Facebook’s role is perhaps more complex. It positions itself as an employer of choice, but if that doesn’t also extend to the employees in its wider ‘family’, then it would seem that the Facebook team will need to keep a closer eye on subcontractors in the future.

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