A BBC News Arabic investigation, Silicon Valley’s Online Slave Market, has found Google and Apple are enabling an illegal online slave market by approving and providing apps used for the illegal buying and selling of domestic workers in Kuwait. It also found hundreds of domestic workers for sale on popular hashtags and accounts on Facebook-owned Instagram.
Urmila Bhoola, UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery told the BBC: “If Google, Apple, Facebook, or any other company is promoting apps like these, hosting apps like these, developing apps like these, they are promoting an online slave market”.
The BBC News undercover investigation team discovered a child, Fatou*, 16 years old, being offered for sale, and evidence of international and local laws on human trafficking, modern slavery and forced labour being broken.
Fatou was put up for sale in Kuwait on the app ‘4Sale’ for $3800 – the app is available to download on both Apple App Store and Google Play. The girl was being sold alongside things like second hand cars, lawnmowers and TVs. The discovery of Fatou in Kuwait City, her rescue and journey back home to Guinea, West Africa, is at the heart of this powerful and shocking film.
Two members of the BBC’s team went undercover, posing as a married couple looking to buy a new domestic worker. The team spoke to 57 app users and were invited to meet women being offered for sale by more than 15 Kuwaitis on apps available on Google Play and the Apple App Store, and through adverts posted via Instagram.
Kuwait has some of the strictest laws in place in the Gulf to defend the rights of domestic workers. However, the undercover BBC team were repeatedly urged to break these laws by the sellers; they were encouraged by sellers to keep wages low, confiscate the workers’ passports, deny them the right to a day off or holiday, and restrict the movement and communication of the domestic worker outside the household. All of these abuses are clear violations of Kuwait’s 2015 domestic worker law and international law.
One seller, who told the BBC undercover team he was a policeman, advised that the domestic worker he was trying to sell should have “no telephone” and should not be allowed outside. He also advised the undercover team that they “take the passport, hide it in the safe”.
4Sale, the app which was used to sell 16-year-old Fatou, has removed its domestic workers section following the BBC’s investigation. They told the BBC: “4Sale is committed to running its business ethically and in line with the relevant laws and regulations in Kuwait [...]. The allegations are appalling and ones that 4Sale completely condemns”.
The Head of the Domestic Workers office in Kuwait, Nasser Al Mousawi, told the BBC: “We are at war with this type of behaviour. These kinds of websites, and applications like these, will be heavily scrutinised”.
Despite multiple breaches of the law Fatou’s seller has not been punished so far. She did not respond to requests for an interview by the BBC.
The Kuwait government has made no further comment in response to the BBC’s findings.
The online slave market is not just present in Kuwait. In Saudi Arabia the investigation team found hundreds of women being sold on Haraj, another popular commodity app, and on Facebook-owned Instagram hundreds more were found. The market is accessible to anyone with a Google or Apple smartphone, and experts - including UN Special Rapporteur Urmila Bhoola - are calling for the tech giants to take action, in line with their own policies on human trafficking and modern slavery.
Bhoola says that the government of Kuwait has an obligation under international law to “make sure that laws are passed which hold business accountable for identifying the risks of slavery in their activities and their operations”. While the Kuwaiti government promised new regulations to stop apps like 4Sale, at the time of broadcast none have been introduced.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, told the BBC: “We do not allow content or behaviour on Instagram that may lead to human exploitation [...] Following an investigation, we have banned the hashtag - maids for transfer - ( خادمات للتنازل ) as much of the content violated our policies. We also removed 703 violating accounts”. However, at the time of broadcast, hundreds of Instagram accounts are still active and selling domestic workers.
Haraj, the commodity app used in Saudi Arabia, did not provide us with a statement.
Google told the BBC: “We're deeply troubled by the allegations, as this type of activity has no place on Google Play”.
And Apple said: “We strictly prohibit the solicitation or promotion of illegal behavior, including human trafficking and child exploitation, in the App Store and across every part of our business. We take any accusations or claims around this behavior very seriously.”
As Silicon Valley’s Online Slave Market is released, the online slave market is still booming. Thousands of domestic workers are still available to buy on Instagram, Haraj, and other apps on the Apple App Store and Google Play.
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10 minute version
BBC World Service Group Communications