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Recruiting ‘maids’ on social media takes on monopoly of agencies in the Gulf; workers more vulnerable to exploitation

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Mar 7 2016


The writer is the Associate Editor of Migrant-Rights.org and Strategic Adviser to the Shelter Me Project.

Social media platforms, especially Facebook pages and groups, have now become marketplaces to subvert the role of recruitment agencies for hiring a domestic worker.

These groups are country specific, but also provide cross-border recruitment, bypassing certain moratoriums in place throughout the GCC. These groups and pages demonstrate that bans do little to protect workers, and in fact make them more vulnerable.

For instance, the Philippines doesn’t process contracts for workers to the UAE as the Emirates has not agreed to allow the Philippines labor attache to verify contracts. This in turn has created a huge black market for Filipino domestic workers, who are widely sought for their skill-level and English-language command.

Indonesia has banned any new deployment of domestic workers all the GCC countries. Yet, the demand for Indonesian workers persists across the region and so does Indonesians’ desire to migrate for a better livelihood, as there are not enough job opportunities at home.

Anis Hidayah, Executive Director of Migrant Care Indonesia, believes a temporary ban might be useful, to allow for time to correct procedures and improve conditions; however, outright ban not only denies workers a basic right to livelihood,, but also makes them even more vulnerable to trafficking. “This also highlights the repercussions of allowing recruitment agencies a monopoly,” she added, in a conversation with Migrant-Rights.org.

The Emirates-based Facebook group Maids.Ae has nearly 74,000 likes, and features workers recruited from neighbouring countries, especially Kuwait. Maids in Qatar, a closed group, has nearly 9,000 members, with several dozens of weekly posts seeking and offering services.

Discussions include “visa transfers”, “part-time”, “maid-sharing”, “live in” and “live-out” and a whole host of other ways of navigating the narrow and difficult path of hiring and housing a domestic worker.

Why This Works For Employers

Nearly 40% of Qatari employers surveyed by the Shelter Me project preferred recruiting via referrals over using recruitment agents .

Employers in Shelter Me project focus groups expressed disappointment with recruitment agencies, both because of high costs, and because they were unable to vet the candidate. Using referrals on social media and through friends helps employers familiarise themselves with the worker. Bypassing agents also provides more options than sponsoring a full time live-in worker. For a lot of families, employing part-time or live-out workers is more convenient, but the only legal option available is hire workers hourly is through a cleaning services company. These companies have become popular in recent years, but do not cover childcare or cooking needs. So many risk the hefty fines to employ a worker not under their sponsorship.

Some employers allow the domestic workers they sponsor to work outside of their homes, either to subsidise their own costs or to help the worker earn extra income.

Mobility that’s limited in the best of conditions becomes even worse [...] out of fear of being reported or deported.

Why Domestic Workers Use This Type of Recruitment

Workers use these platforms for several reasons, all of which underline their vulnerabilities under the stifling sponsorship system (kafala), and uncovered by the labor laws.

Some of the reasons include:

  • They are at the end of their contract period and would like to continue working in the country, but with a different sponsor. They do not want to go through the whole recruitment cycle again, which would require them to return to their home countries.
  • Their current employer (usually a migrant themselves) has to leave the country mid-contract, and the worker would like to complete their original contractual period.
  • Domestic Workers who have left abusive employment situations and have debts and/or families to support in their home countries may seek supplementary employment options. This is illegal as per the laws of all GCC states, unless it has been formally redressed by the government agency that has oversight.
  • Many domestic workers are recruited on false promises, on a visit or business visa, and have spent a lot of money to do so. They are left with little option but to seek either full or part-time jobs, again in violation of the residency laws..
  • Those working in formal sectors but who wish to make some money during their free time or weekends.

These are the most common circumstances leading workers to seek employment via nontraditional and ‘extra-legal’ means, all of which can put workers at more risk; susceptible to exploitation by employers and to detention by authorities.

Risks For Workers

While employers, if caught, will be fined for employing an undocumented worker or someone not under their sponsorship, the worker risks detention and deportation. To evade arrests in the regular raids undertaken by police in GCC states to round-up ‘runaway’ workers is to stay indoors. Mobility that’s limited in the best of conditions becomes even worse, where the worker is forced to remain in unfair employment conditions out of fear of being reported or deported.

A Filipino housekeeper told Migrant-Rights.org she has been working without a proper visa for the last two years. “My employer didn’t give me enough food or pay me properly. So I ran away. I could not continue working there. I live with my friend now.” She does not want to file a formal complaint. “Nothing will happen to them, but I will be sent back. So I will save enough money working part-time jobs, and after that will go to my embassy for help.” She echoes the strategy many other undocumented workers adopt.

Ann Abunda’s primary concern is that these platforms are not regulated and makes workers vulnerable to trafficking. Abunda is the Head Volunteer of Sandigan Kuwait, a domestic workers network and spoke in depth with Migrant-Rights.org on how social media facilitates trafficking.

“The worker must be deployed in the country she was recruited for, say Kuwait, where her visa status will guarantee her some protection under their monitoring systems. We have difficulty helping them once they leave the original country of deployment.”

She feels that it is tricky even if the worker moves to country where there is no ban.

“Basically it is cross border trafficking. They use Facebook and Instagram to recruit from neighboring countries. They [workers and sponsors] are posting their identity on Instagram to “sell” them,” she says, pointing out that many employers bring their ‘house helper’ to countries like Saudi, Egypt and Lebanon to avoid legal responsibility and local regulation for domestic workers.

Even if done locally, with an ‘NOC’, the means of transferring employers under the kafala , in reality it’s selling their worker to another employer, she feels.

As for workers who wish to legally transfer their visa, Abunda suggests they go through the original agency, and they redeploy at no cost, in the case of Filipino workers and accredited agencies.

The employer, however, will have to pay full fees for workers being deployed, even as the recruitment agent makes a double profit. This is a pitfall in the regulations of the receiving countries that adds tension to the employer-employee dynamic.

David Des Dicang, Labor Attache of the Philippines Embassy in Qatar, says that resorting is social media is natural. “This is bound to happen because of the facility. I do not think it is only because of frustration with recruitment agents. It is what it is because this is the fastest way to communicate and to save on costs.

“This is good and bad,” he told Migrant-Rights.org. “It is bad if placement happens directly, without due processes set by the sending and receiving countries, which protect ‘household workers’. It is good if they just make a connection, and then go through a proper contractual procedure.” Dicang feels this is something host governments should monitor and control.

Holding Gulf states responsible

However, there’s little evidence that combatting cross-border trafficking is priority for GCC states. Especially when countries like Saudi attempt to formalise cross-border recruitment.

In a bid to control the prohibitively high cost of hiring domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Shura council urged the Saudi ministry of labor to coordinate with relevant authorities to hire domestic laborers through special offices in Kuwait and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

Qatari daily The Peninsula reports that "Law-enforcement agencies have arrested many people involved in luring housemaids to escape their sponsors."

However, Director of Search and Follow-Up Department (S&FD) of the Ministry of Interior Brigadier Nasser Al Sayed says illegal visa trade is on a decline. “The figures show beyond doubt that the illegal visa trade is not a problem anymore.”

Recruitment on social media can easily slide into the sale and trade of women, made all the more possible by kafala- or sponsorship-based labor management. No doubt these pages and groups provide a much-needed space for employment mobility and flexibility that the broken recruitment industry and the strict sponsorship system lack. But bypassing broken regulations and systems still leaves workers in an unprotected space. GCC states should recognize that the element of choice in this kind of recruitment, for both employers and workers, needs a place in the legal framework.

ETA: The report on visa trade from Qatar
Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East