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Kuwait and Saudi Arabia react to BBC’s investigation of online ‘maid trade’

Response to online sale of domestic workers may not address root problems

On December 11, 2019

A recent BBC News investigative report drew renewed attention to the online black market where domestic workers in the Gulf are essentially bought and sold. 

The report triggered mixed reactions from governments as well as the online platforms that hosted domestic worker advertisements. Responses so far have been reactive, failing to acknowledge the deep-rooted dehumanisation of domestic workers and the overall commodification of migrant workers.

A now-deleted post advertising a domestic worker.

One challenge is that labour and immigration laws are repressive in Kuwait and the rest of the GCC countries, and there are few degrees of separation between what is considered legal and what amounts to forced labour or trafficking.  

Kuwaiti lawyer Yusuf Al-Adwani spoke of these issues to Al-Anba News, noting that the transfer of domestic workers between sponsors and the “return” of domestic workers to recruitment agencies are considered legal and often involve a financial exchange. The practices exposed on the BBC documentary can only be criminalised if “a law [is] passed which differentiates clearly between transfer or forgoing or selling” of domestic workers. 

Secretary-General of the National Association for Family Security Dr. Mariam Al-Shammari previously argued that according to Kuwait's definition of Trafficking in Persons:

"Advertisements for the sale of domestic workers in Kuwait are not considered a real and practical type of trafficking in humans; rather, it’s a mistake in the use of the term."  Al-Shammari argues that domestic workers let go by their sponsors sometimes prefer to stay in Kuwait and transfer their services to other sponsors. 

The ability for workers to transfer from one sponsor to another is a critical right to labour mobility, but the transfer process in its current form exposes workers to great vulnerability; transfers require the current employer’s consent in most cases, while workers do not have a choice in their selecting their new employer. Though the transfer is often legally registered, there is no vetting of the new employer.  

Sponsors often attempt to earn back recruitment costs or otherwise profit from transfers by charging the new sponsor a fee (which the worker may also have to pay back through future salary deductions.) Sponsors market workers’ availability on shopping platforms and WhatsApp groups, often using commodifying language to 'maximise their returns'. 

Chairman of the Kuwait Union for Domestic Labor Recruitment Offices Khaled Al-Dakhnan called the BBC report “unfair," claiming “(it) doesn’t show the full picture.” 

But Kuwaiti human rights organisations have long warned against the practice of commodifying domestic workers on social media and lamented the lack of prosecution against offenders.  Over a year before the BBC report, Khalid Al-Humaidi, Chairman of the Board of Kuwait Society for Human Rights,  stated that

 “[the] sale and purchase of workers and offering them as a commodity via social media is considered trafficking in humans with full integrated elements and cannot be seen in any other angle.” 

Despite awareness of the problem for years, it took an international outcry for the government to take any strong measures. Officials at Public Authority for Manpower (PAM), the entity responsible for domestic worker affairs in Kuwait,  vowed to take legal action against online traders. PAM also announced legal action in two cases featured on the BBC report and said that website managers have been made to sign a legal memorandum to prohibit such advertisements.

PAM’s Deputy Director for Labour Protection Dr. Mubarak Al-Jafoor called for anyone with information regarding the online sale of domestic workers to inform the Authority directly. Al-Jafoor noted that offenders will be subject to the penalties stipulated in the Law No. 68 of 2015 on Employment of Domestic Workers, and in Law No. 91 of 2013 on Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants. 

One critical measure taken is a change in the transfer process: according to a circular issued by the Director-General of the General Administration of Residency Affairs, domestic workers may only transfer sponsorship if the two sponsors, along with the domestic worker, are physically present in the office of Residency Affairs. The new process also requires the worker’s written consent. 

Ironically, Kuwait’s main media outlets likened the new process to the selling of vehicles, commodifying workers in the same way as the advertisements.

“This procedure is similar to what is done in the General Directorate of Traffic regarding the transfer of ownership or sale of vehicles as it requires the presence of the seller and buyer and sign before the traffic officer.”(Arab Times).

Saudi Arabia  

In Saudi Arabia, the shopping site Haraj, which featured in the BBC report, has deleted all posts advertising migrant domestic workers for transfer or sale and has now banned the practice throughout its platform.

Other Saudi shopping websites including sa.opensooq initially only removed posts that explicitly contained the words “sell” and continued to feature advertisements with the word “transfer.”  Posts included photos of workers, their passports, and desirable traits and skills such as “obedient” and “good cooking.” This week, Opensooq removed most listings involving domestic workers site except for those posted by recruitment agencies

The Saudi Human Rights Commission announced that it will collaborate with relevant authorities to monitor online websites that violate labour laws and prosecute those who engage in the “sale, rental and auction” of female and male workers online. 

The Commission stressed that offenders will be prosecuted under Saudi’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law of 2009, which punishes trafficking crimes with imprisonment for a period up to 15 years, a fine of one million Riyals, or both. 

Saudi authorities have yet to make a public comment on the report.

An online recruitment platform can be empowering if instead of being marketed by other parties,  domestic workers could post their CVs or experiences and negotiate their own wages and conditions. Domestic workers looking for new opportunities do often post their services and availability on online forums and facebook groups and benefit from greater control over choosing their own employer. However, this practice is difficult under the existing migration system unless the worker has the support of their current sponsor. Gulf governments could both safeguard workers' rights and address shortages in domestic worker recruitment by enabling workers to more easily transfer sponsorship on their own and promoting regulated job matching platforms.