Drive around the streets of Kuwait and you won’t see these women. They are behind closed doors, deprived of their basic rights, unable to leave and at risk of being sold to the highest bidder.
But pick up a smartphone and you can scroll through thousands of their pictures, categorised by race, and available to buy for a few thousand dollars.
An undercover investigation by BBC News Arabic has found that domestic workers are being illegally bought and sold online in a booming black market.
Some of the trade has been carried out on Facebook-owned Instagram, where posts have been promoted via algorithm-boosted hashtags, and sales negotiated via private messages.
Other listings have been promoted in apps approved and provided by Google Play and Apple’s App Store, as well as the e-commerce platforms’ own websites.
“What they are doing is promoting an online slave market,” said Urmila Bhoola, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery.
“If Google, Apple, Facebook or any other companies are hosting apps like these, they have to be held accountable.”
After being alerted to the issue, Facebook said it had banned one of the hashtags involved.
Google and Apple said they were working with app developers to prevent illegal activity.
The illegal sales are a clear breach of the US tech firms’ rules for app developers and users.
However, the BBC has found there are many related listings still active on Instagram, and other apps available via Apple and Google….
Posing as a couple newly arrived in Kuwait, the BBC Arabic undercover team spoke to 57 app users and visited more than a dozen people who were trying to sell them their domestic worker via a popular commodity app called 4Sale.
The sellers almost all advocated confiscating the women’s passports, confining them to the house, denying them any time off and giving them little or no access to a phone.
The 4Sale app allowed you to filter by race, with different price brackets clearly on offer, according to category.
“African worker, clean and smiley,” said one listing. Another: “Nepalese who dares to ask for a day off.”
When speaking to the sellers, the undercover team frequently heard racist language. “Indians are the dirtiest,” said one, describing a woman being advertised.
Human rights violated
The team were urged by app users, who acted as if they were the “owners” of these women, to deny them other basic human rights, such as giving them a “day or a minute or a second” off.
One man, a policeman, looking to offload his worker said: “Trust me she’s very nice, she laughs and has a smiley face. Even if you keep her up till 5am she won’t complain.”
He told the BBC team how domestic workers were used as a commodity.
“You will find someone buying a maid for 600 KD ($2,000), and selling her on for 1,000 KD ($3,300),” he said.
He suggested how the BBC team should treat her: “The passport, don’t give it to her. You’re her sponsor. Why would you give her her passport?”…
Google said it was “deeply troubled by the allegations”.
“We have asked BBC to share additional details so we can conduct a more in-depth investigation,” it added. “We are working to ensure that the app developers put in place the necessary safeguards to prevent individuals from conducting this activity on their online marketplaces.”
Apple said it “strictly prohibited” the promotion of human trafficking and child exploitation in apps made available on its marketplace….