If you thought slavery had completely been eradicated, think again. A recent undercover investigation by BBC News Arabic exposed the illegal buying and selling of domestic workers online in a booming black market.
Users carry out some of the trade on Facebook-owned Instagram in posts promoted via hashtags, and sales they negotiate via private messages. They also promoted other listings in apps approved and provided by Google Play and Apple’s App Stores, as well as the e-commerce platforms’ own websites.
Posing as a couple newly arrived in Kuwait, an Arab country in the Middle East, the BBC Arabic undercover team spoke to 57 app users. They also visited more than a dozen people who were trying to sell them their domestic worker via a popular commodity app called 4Sale.
The app users acted as if they were the “owners” of these women. The sellers almost all advocated confiscating the women’s passports. They also admitted to confining them to the house, and denying them any time off and access to a phone.
Nine out of 10 Kuwaiti homes have a domestic worker. They come from some of the poorest parts of the world to the Gulf, aiming to make enough money to support their family at home.
The illegal sales are a clear breach of the US tech firms’ rules for app developers and users.
Urmila Bhoola, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, said:
“What they are doing is promoting an online slave market. If Google, Apple, Facebook or any other companies are hosting apps like these, they have to be held accountable. This is the quintessential example of modern slavery. Here we see a child being sold and traded like chattel, like a piece of property.”
After receiving alerts on the issue, Facebook said it subsequently banned one of the hashtags involved. Google and Apple also said they were working with app developers to prevent illegal activity. However, the BBC has found there are many related listings still active on Instagram, and other apps available via Apple and Google.
The 4Sale app allowed you to filter by race, with different price brac
kets clearly on offer, according to category. They used domestic workers as a commodity, with many users buying maids to sell at higher rates.
In most places in the Gulf, agencies bring domestic workers into the country and then officially register them with the government. Potential employers pay the agencies a fee and become the official sponsor of the domestic worker. Under the Kafala system, a domestic worker cannot change or quit her job, nor leave the country without her sponsor’s permission. In 2015, Kuwait introduced some of the most wide-ranging laws to help protect domestic workers. But the law was not popular with everyone.
Apps including 4Sale and Instagram enable employers to sell the sponsorship of their domestic workers to other employers, for a profit. This bypasses the agencies and creates an unregulated black market which leaves women more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
This online slave market is not just happening in Kuwait. In Saudi Arabia, the investigation found hundreds of women sold on Haraj, another popular commodity app. There were hundreds more on Instagram, an app owned by Facebook.
The Kuwaiti government said it was “at war with this kind of behaviour”. It then insisted on the heavy scrutiny of the apps. However, to date, the government has taken no significant action against the platforms.
Since the BBC team contacted the apps and tech companies about their findings, 4Sale removed the domestic worker section of its platform. Facebook said it had banned the Arabic hashtag “خادمات للتنازل#” – which translates as “#maidsfortransfer”. There was no comment from the Saudi commodity app, Haraj. Google said it was “deeply troubled by the allegations”. Apple said it “strictly prohibited” the promotion of human trafficking and child exploitation in apps made available on its marketplace.
The firms continue to distribute the 4Sale and Haraj apps, however, on the basis that their primary purpose is to sell legitimate goods and services.
4Sale may have tackled the problem. However, hundreds of domestic workers are still being traded on Haraj, Instagram and other apps.