The US technology industry is under criticism for helping the global slave trade thrive. Its critics argue it should be held accountable for facilitating the barbarous practice. 

Posing as a husband and wife, a team from the BBC News Arabic service found it was disturbingly easy to discover human traffickers selling slaves online on Instagram and other popular apps. “In the Gulf, women employed as domestic workers are being sold online via apps approved and provided by Google and Apple,” the investigators say in a video they recently released. “It’s been called an online slave market.”

The BBC Arabic undercover investigation found that domestic workers are being illegally bought and sold online in a booming black market. Kept behind closed doors, deprived of their basic rights, they are unable to leave and at risk of being sold to the highest bidder. But pick up a smartphone and you can scroll through thousands of their pictures, categorised by race, and available to buy for a few thousand dollars.

Some of the trade has been carried out on Facebook-owned Instagram, where posts have been promoted via algorithm-boosted hashtags, and sales negotiated via private messages. Other listings have been promoted in apps approved and provided by Google Play and Apple’s App Store, as well as the e-commerce platforms’ own websites.

Google and Apple said they were working with app developers to prevent illegal activity.

The illegal sales are a clear breach of the US tech firms’ rules for app developers and users. However, the BBC has found there are many related listings still active on Instagram, and other apps available via Apple and Google.

Slave Market:  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. Posing as a couple newly arrived in Kuwait, the BBC Arabic undercover team spoke to 57 app users and visited more than a dozen people who were trying to sell them their domestic worker via a popular commodity app called 4Sale.

The sellers almost all advocated confiscating the women’s passports, confining them to the house, denying them any time off and giving them little or no access to a phone.

Human Rights Violated: The team were urged by app users, who acted as if they were the “owners” of these women, to deny them other basic human rights, such as giving them a “day or a minute or a second” off.  One man, a policeman, told the BBC team how domestic workers were used as a commodity.  “You will find someone buying a maid for 600 KD ($2,000), and selling her on for 1,000 KD ($3,300),” he said.

Sponsor’s Permission: In most places in the Gulf, domestic workers are brought into the country by agencies and then officially registered with the government.  Potential employers pay the agencies a fee and become the official sponsor of the domestic worker. Under what is known as 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 being sold on Haraj, another popular commodity app. There were hundreds more on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. 

BBCreporters travelled to Guinea to try to contact the family of Fatou, the child they had discovered being offered for sale in Kuwait.  Every year hundreds of women are trafficked from here to the Gulf as domestic workers. Fatou was found by the Kuwaiti authorities and taken to the government-run shelter for domestic workers. Two days later she was deported back to Guinea for being a minor.

Hashtag Removed:  The Kuwaiti government says it is “at war with this kind of behaviour” and insisted the apps would be “heavily scrutinised”. To date, no significant action has been taken against the platform. There has not been any legal action against the woman who tried to sell Fatou. Since the BBC team contacted the apps and tech companies about their findings, 4Sale has removed the domestic worker section of its platform.

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, but at the time of publication, hundreds of domestic workers were still being traded on Haraj, Instagram and other apps which the BBC has seen.

Source:  Cyber Security Intelligence