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 signed off on a contract with a new employer, which is a complicated legal procedure.
By organising 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. Thus, instead of breaking their contracts with workers, sponsors organise amongst themselves to transfer domestic workers from one home to another.
On social media, on the site "Haraj.com", 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.
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. 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.
For example, “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.”
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.