Tech Companies, Kuwaiti Authorities Respond to BBC Investigation of Modern Slavery in Kuwait Via Apps

On October 31, BBC News reported that an undercover investigation by BBC News Arabic found that domestic workers in Kuwait “are being illegally bought and sold online in a booming black market”  through readily available apps.  Some of the trafficking of domestic workers reportedly “has been carried out on Facebook-owned Instagram, where posts have been promoted via algorithm-boosted hashtags, and sales negotiated via private messages.”  Similar 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.”

Despite the fact that Kuwait has laws to help protect domestic workers in the country, BBC News reported that various apps, such as 4Sale and Instagram, “enable employers to sell the sponsorship of their domestic workers to other employers, for a profit.”  This practice bypasses the agencies that ordinarily bring domestic workers into the country, and “creates an unregulated black market which leaves women more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.”

According to the BBC, nine out of 10 Kuwaiti homes have a domestic worker.  In the BBC Arabic investigation, two members of the investigative team posed as a couple who was newly arrived in Kuwait.  They reportedly “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.”  That app “allowed you to filter by race, with different price brackets clearly on offer, according to category.”  One “seller”, a policeman seeking to sell his domestic worker, told the couple that “You will find someone buying a maid for 600 KD ($2,000), and selling her on for 1,000 KD ($3,300).”

Various “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.”  The undercover team were told 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.”

In addition to the apps being used in Kuwait, the investigation found hundreds of women being sold on Haraj, a popular commodity app In Saudi Arabia and “hundreds more” on Instagram.

After the BBC team “contacted the apps and tech companies about their findings,” multiple companies took various actions:

  • 4Sale “removed the domestic worker section of its platform.”
  • Facebook, which owns Instagram, said that it had banned the Arabic hashtag that translates as “#maidsfortransfer,” and pledged to “continue to work with law enforcement, expert organisations and industry to prevent this behaviour on our platforms.”
  • Google stated that it was “deeply troubled by the allegations,” and that it had asked the BBC “to share additional details so we can conduct a more in-depth investigation.”
  • Apple stated that it “’strictly prohibited’ the promotion of human trafficking and child exploitation in apps made available on its marketplace,” adding that app developers “are responsible for policing the user-generated content on their platforms.”
  • Haraj reportedly had no comment.

As of October 31, certain firms had continued to distribute the 4Sale and Haraj apps, “on the basis that their primary purpose is to sell legitimate goods and services.”  Consequently, hundreds of domestic workers were still being traded on Haraj, Instagram, and other apps.

The next day, however, the BBC reported that Kuwaiti authorities had “officially summoned the owners of several social media accounts used to sell domestic workers as slaves, ordered those responsible to take down their ads, and compelled them “to sign a legal commitment, promising no longer to participate in this activity.”  In addition, Instagram stated that “it had removed further content across Facebook and Instagram, and would prevent the creation of new accounts designed to be used for the online slave market.”  Google and Apple also stated that “they were working with app developers to prevent illegal activity on their platforms.”

N.B.: These BBC reports not only show another dimension of how modern slavery is conducted, but also provide evidence that tech companies need to incorporate into improving their Modern Slavery Act compliance programs.  App developers should also take note of these reports, and take action to see that their apps are not used for such repellent practices.

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