Offering domestic workers up for "sale" or "relinquishment" via social media platforms is illegal (and racist, inhumane, and unethical) but, unfortunately, all too common in countries across the region.
A recent undercover investigation by BBC News Arabic shed light on this online black market of human slavery, a place that's normalizing such shameless actions.
The report focused on Kuwait, where hundreds of residents were found to be using mobile phone apps to "buy and sell" domestic workers. BBC's undercover team posed as a couple newly arrived in the Gulf nation and on the quest to hire domestic help. Both journalists 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 application allows users to filter domestic workers by race and is quite popular in the country. It's certainly not the only app being used for similar purposes as people have also been advertising domestic workers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
One of the domestic workers featured in the BBC report under the name Fatou confessed to the duo that she was just 16 years old. Under Kuwaiti law, 21 is the minimum age for domestic help to be hired in the country.
When the journalists reported the matter to Kuwaiti authorities, officials took action in the case by deporting the girl but filed no legal complaint against the woman who tried to sell her off.
The BBC team caught up with the young girl back home in Guinea.
"My life is better now. I feel like I'm coming back from slavery," she said, expressing her relief at being sent back home.
The firm that brought Fatou to Kuwait has also not been held accountable, though it violated the Gulf nation's laws by faking the teen's age on legal documents. However, the country has now vowed to track down and punish those involved in selling domestic workers online.
BBC's investigation also found similar incidents taking place in Saudi Arabia, with domestic workers being advertised via a commodity app known as Haraj.
The report uncovered what lies behind the troubling online black market
Every agent or employer interviewed as part of the report used racist language to describe domestic workers.
From "Indians are the dirtiest" to "she's uneducated so she can't use a mobile phone," unacceptable statements were frequent and revealing. They uncovered the racist rhetoric of those who exploit domestic workers and deem it acceptable for them to be sold online.
The captions under images of women put up for sale paint a disturbing picture of the racism domestic workers are subjected to in the region. Sellers who appeared in the report seemed to be unconcerned with the legality of their actions. When asked whether what they're doing is allowed, one of the sellers said: "We don't follow the law."
Almost all of them also "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."
A policeman looking to offload his worker told the undercover journalists "Trust me she's very nice, she laughs and has a smiley face. Even if you keep her up till 5 am she won't complain."
The report's findings raise alarm
In a statement she made in response to the BBC report, Urmila Bhoola, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, expressed her outrage at the findings.
"What they are doing is illegal. It is not only in violation of national Kuwaiti law, it is a violation of international human rights law and labor standards. If Google, Apple, Facebook or any other companies are hosting apps like these, they have to be held accountable," she said.
Officials at Facebook said they banned one of the hashtags used to sell domestic workers after being alerted to the issue.
"We will continue to work with law enforcement, expert organizations and industry to prevent this behaviour on our platforms," a Facebook spokesman explained.
Google and Apple said they would investigate the findings, adding that they are already working with app developers to prevent such illegal activity.
After being contacted on the matter, 4Sale removed the domestic worker section off its platform. However, the Saudi app Haraj continues to host such ads.
Why domestic workers are incredibly vulnerable in the Arab world?
While it's illegal to sell domestic workers online in Kuwait and in all Arab countries, hiring via the unjust kafala system is not. All domestic workers arriving in the region are governed by the system, which has been dubbed a form of "modern-day slavery" by rights groups.
According to Human Rights Watch, the scheme grants "sponsoring employers substantial control over workers and leaves workers vulnerable to situations of trafficking and forced labor."
By legally binding domestic workers to their employers and giving them nearly no legal protection, the system renders them helpless in case they are advertised or sold online.
Employers can basically bypass agencies that arrange work papers for these women and regulate their working conditions by selling the sponsorship of their domestic workers to other employers for a profit.
This has been happening in Arab countries for years. Domestic workers have been put up for sale in Lebanon, Kuwait, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar.
Pressuring mobile applications and search engines to take action against those trying to sell human beings online is crucial. But to entirely shut down this black market, calling for the complete abolishment of the kafala system remains the most important step.