Friday, March 16, 2018

The Internet Slave Market

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 "", 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.


Tim Hart said...

We don’t need to go as far as Saudi Arabia for this kind of indentured slavery or labour trading systems. It is alive and well in the UK, operating legally and with similarly oppressive consequences for the individuals concerned. Many non EU workers in the UK are subject to a tied labour scheme similar to that in Saudi Arabia. Their work visas are tied to one employer, their sponsor. They cannot transfer between employers without the consent of their current sponsor. The dangers of abuse in such circumstances is obvious but the practice is justified on the grounds of ‘sound immigration’ policy. A few years ago I attempted to intervene on behalf of some Chinese and Indian workers who were employed by a care home. They had secured their sponsor through an intermediary for which they had paid several thousand pounds in cash for the privilege, a proportion of which I suspect went to the sponsor The employees were then required to rent accommodation from their sponsor for the first 18 months of their employment, usually sharing one room with up to four others, and paying high rent. Their compliance at work was secured under the threat of termination of their contracts, which would have meant their continued residency in the UK would have been illegal; thus they could not refuse any of their employer’s requests, however unreasonable. Those who sought a transfer to another employer were required to pay a cash release fee to their sponsor. My attempt to intervene was quickly halted by the threat of termination of the contracts of the complainants. In theory a number of these tied and intimidation practices, together with termination of contracts, could have been the subject of legal challenge but, as with most aspects of the law, money and personal courage are needed to enforce such rights. The imbalance in power between those who seek to defend their rights against the offending parties is such that it is virtually impossible to do so, thus making a mockery of the rule of law and confirming that the ‘employment relationship,’ under capitalism, is pernicious everywhere in the world; the difference between the UK and Saudi Arabia is merely a matter of degree.

ajohnstone said...

You are perfectly correct and the blog has drawn attention to such rules an regulations that many foreign domestic workers are subjected to in the UK