In the past few years, offering domestic workers up for "sale" online disturbingly rose in popularity in many Arab countries including Saudi Arabia. As the phenomenon continues to be reported in the kingdom, there finally seems to be an official move aimed at ending it.
On Monday, the country's Human Rights Commission (HRC) said it will prosecute anyone who publishes advertisements for the "sale, renting and sponsorship change of domestic workers in an illegal way."
"Efforts are being made, in cooperation and in coordination between a number of security, supervisory and social authorities, to conduct transparent investigations into such cases," the organization added in a statement.
Officials explained that this move comes as part of the organization's efforts to tackle practices involving human trafficking.
In their recent statement, HRC officials revealed they have already taken several measures to curb the publishing of ads related to the selling of both male and female domestic workers. These advertisements are freely published in newspapers, digital media, and on social media platforms.
However, these measures weren't enough to put an end to the despicable online black market of slavery, which leaves victims subject to inhumane abuses of the most basic of their human rights.
But, as of this week, the commission will start verifying cases by meeting with affected workers. Individuals or companies found to be involved in the trading of domestic workers will be referred to judicial authorities and are set to face punishment under the country's human trafficking laws.
Human trafficking is a serious offense under Saudi law and carries punishments of up to 15 years in jail, a fine not exceeding 1 million Saudi riyals ($266,652), or both.
Apps available in Saudi Arabia continue to take part in the phenomenon
One of the apps used, a commodity app known as Haraj, allows users to advertise domestic workers for sale, a BBC investigation recently revealed.
The undercover report investigated the selling of domestic workers in Kuwait but also tapped into Saudi Arabia. Its findings uncovered the troubling reality of this phenomenon which constitutes clear breaches of human trafficking laws.
After the BBC highlighted the matter, Kuwaiti authorities announced they would be taking action in such cases. However, at the time of writing, several applications were still up and running in both Gulf nations and elsewhere in the Arab world.
This still happens despite the fact that the majority of these countries ban these "sales." Why? Because their governments continue to allow the hiring of domestic workers via the kafala system.
Domestic workers will always be vulnerable under kafala laws
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. In a recent statement, HRC cited a few of the violations workers are subjected to under the system (other than being treated as commodities) and they include:
- Constricting a worker's freedom of movement
- Subjecting a worker to violence and physical assault
- Not paying workers adequate wages
- Overworking helpers and not giving them hours for rest or days off
- Confiscating their passports and other identity documents
- Barring them from contacting their families
- Accepting money for sending them back to their countries
- Forcing them to work for other people without remuneration
The list above provides a few insights into what most domestic workers experience under the kafala system, excluding the amount of racism they often have to endure.
This system is allowing for these online slavery markets to exist
The reason why some employers think it's acceptable to sell a worker online is the fact that they are granted full control over them via sponsorship laws.
Under these legislations, employers can basically bypass agencies that arrange papers for workers and regulate their employment conditions by selling the sponsorship of their domestic workers 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.
Taking legal action against perpetrators and pressuring mobile applications to block those trying to sell human beings online is crucial. But the only way to completely shut down this black market is through the abolishment of the kafala system.