In Saudi Arabia, domestic workers are auctioned online
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When Moroccan website Yabiladi published images of social media posts by people in Saudi Arabia putting up Moroccan domestic workers “for sale”, there was an outpouring of shock and outrage. This is an illegal but apparently tolerated deviation of Saudi Arabia’s “kafala” system of guardianship, where foreign domestic workers are completely dependent on their sponsors – who are often also their employers.
Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are the new playing fields for recruitment agencies that deal with foreign domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. The very first site that the international press discovered was the Twitter account “Moussaouqa Oum Ghada” (in English, “Oum Ghada Market”), where domestic workers are sold and bartered. The account, which has close to 2,000 followers, has been going strong since October 2013. The ads for domestic workers are usually screengrabs of WhatsApp conversations, illustrated with photos.
There’s a brief description of the worker, highlighting her strengths and weaknesses. Usually the description is followed by the hashtag (in Arabic) “#DomesticWorkerToLetGo” and an explanation of why the employers are “letting go” this particular worker.
The reasons range widely. Sometimes, the former employers are moving. Other times, the employers admit that they’ve been late paying their employees and, instead of rectifying the situation, they prefer to let the employee go. On other occasions, they launch accusations at their employee, claiming, for example, that she didn’t look after the children properly. One message even specifies that the employee can be taken for a trial period if the employer wants to better evaluate her skills.
"She works well and washes everything and is clean enough”
This screengrab (below) shows just one example of one of these messages:
It says: “Letting go of female Indian worker. She works well and washes everything – from the floor to clothes – and is clean enough. On the other hand, she doesn’t know how to cook and only knows how to cut vegetables. It’s been less than a month since she arrived in Saudi Arabia. She doesn’t speak Arabic or English, she only knows how to speak her own language. She’s 50 years old.”
The ad also explains why she is being “let go”: “The reasons for her suspension have to do with the large size of the former household, which meant that she wasn’t very efficient. It’s possible to try her for a trial period.”
This trade occurs on various platforms. There’s also a Moussaouqa Oum Ghada Snapchat account that regularly publishes “stories” (10 to 15 second videos) that are really ads to sell or trade workers.
Screengrab of a Snapchat “story” posted on the account “Moussaouqa oum Ghada": “Bangalore Muslim woman. 37 years old. Speaks basic Arabic. Has been working in Saudi Arabia for close to two years. During these two years, she hasn’t had any problems. Fixed salary: 1,000 riyals [equivalent to 260 euros]. Reason for the sale: late salary payments. Price for the sale set at 20,000 riyals [equivalent to 4,339 euros]. Possible to negotiate.”
FRANCE 24 contacted a man who called himself “Mohamed”, who runs these Twitter and Snapchat accounts from the United Kingdom. He said:
The only thing we are responsible for is centralising the ads by publishing them on our platforms. I connect employers who are looking to hire with those who provide workers. Using Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat is just our way of keeping ourselves relevant – Saudi people are very active on social media. All we do is respond to a demand.
Instagram accounts like “kadamat_ksa” (“domestic workers in Saudi Arabia”) share the same kind of ads.
This ad says, “Senegalese woman looking for a new job. Muslim. 36 years old. She’s been working for three years and knows how to cook (knows most Saudi dishes). Her next contract will be for two years. Reason for letting her go: request for increased salary.”
Getting around the guardianship system
In Saudi Arabia, labour by foreign domestic workers is controlled through the “kafala” system. To get authorisation to work in the country, a foreign worker must have a “kafil” (or “sponsor”). They are given guardianship of foreign domestic workers. They write up their contracts and the terms of their visa. Kafils are sometimes individual employers and sometimes agencies.
This system makes foreign domestic workers dependent on their sponsors. When a woman arrives on Saudi territory, she has to give her passport to her sponsor for the entire duration of her contract. If, at some point during her contract, she wants to change jobs, she has to get permission from her sponsor.
If she is let go, then her former employer has sign off on a contract with a new employer, which is a complicated legal procedure.
By organising these sales and auctions online, sponsors get around these complicated transfer laws: They don’t have to pay fees for breaking a contract with a domestic worker and don’t have to waste time in legal proceedings. Moreover, they ask a fee for the “sale” of their former employee, which they can’t do if they go down the legal route.
“This practice is illegal… but popular”
Thus, instead of breaking their contracts with workers, sponsors organise amongst themselves to transfer domestic workers from one home to another, says Yahya al-Assiri, the founder of Saudi human rights organisation ALQST.
These pages on social media are far from rare and aren’t new. On the site "Haraj.com" [Editor’s note: The main Saudi website for reselling items – a bit like Craigslist], you can buy both used cars and domestic workers.
This practice isn’t legal but it is popular. Saudi law stipulates clearly that a foreign worker doesn’t have the right to work in the home of an employer not named in her contract.
Moreover, foreign domestic workers are supposed to receive compensation for overtime and days off. But when you are operating outside of the law, then the practices are obviously different.
In reality, we are seeing modern slavery take place on social media. The sponsors end up having full control of the lives of domestic workers. The domestic workers find themselves trapped because these sponsors vigorously exploit their ignorance of the laws. It also happens to be incredibly difficult for workers to file complaints.
"Domestic workers become like a defective object. Instead of throwing her away, you give her to the highest bidder, even if you have to lower the price”
Soraya is a young woman from Morocco. She was employed as a domestic worker in a Saudi home in August 2016 before fleeing early this year.
When I first arrived on Saudi soil, I had to give my passport to my sponsor, who was the father of the family. The sponsor is in charge of everything. He decides where you work, where you stay and your hours. It’s just luck whether you get a good sponsor or not.
If a woman gets lucky enough to end up with an honest sponsor, then it’ll be ok. The only problem is the working conditions, which she doesn’t have a say in.
But some sponsors are more cunning. They demand a percentage of your salary and could threaten to give you away to another sponsor without your consent.
It’s a sort of network of lending and sharing. Domestic workers become like defective objects. Instead of throwing her away, you give her to the highest bidder, even if you have to lower the price. It’s a bit like selling second-hand mobile phones, except that we are talking about human beings.
"I knew that they’d give me to the highest bidder”
For several months, I chose to keep my mouth shut because I knew that if I said I wanted to change jobs, then they would just auction me off to the highest bidder.
If it is going badly with your sponsor, getting away is incredibily complicated.
For example, if a domestic worker wants to end her contract, then usually she has to pay back fees that the sponsor covered initially (like plane tickets and visa fees). I didn’t have money for either.
But I wanted to leave. Instead of telling the truth and risking the possibility of being put up for sale, I pretended that I wanted to attend my sister’s wedding in Morocco. They allowed me to travel for several days. They let me buy a ticket and didn’t pay me all of the money they owed me, as if to force me to return. But I never went back.”
After the scandal that followed the media coverage on these online ads, the Saudi minister of the Interior announced that an investigation was being opened.