She will work day and night and does not need rest, boasts Noura, a housewife in Riyadh. Gesturing to the cowering Ugandan maid next to her, who is 23 according to Noura, she adds: “If she does something wrong, you just send her to her room and do not let her out.”
Noura, who clutches gold Gucci sunglasses as she bargains for a price of £3,500 for the maid, is eager for a quick deal when she talks to an undercover Times reporter. “I can take her to your home tonight,” she says. “If you are still unsure, no problem, you can rent her instead . . . But tell me now, because by tomorrow someone else will buy her.”
Noura advertised the domestic worker on Haraj.sa, Saudi Arabia’s largest online marketplace, through which a Times investigation shows that hundreds of domestic workers are being illegally trafficked and sold to the highest bidders.
In a thinly disguised black market, dozens of listings are posted each day by Saudi citizens advertising migrant workers as available to buy or rent as maids, cleaners, nannies and drivers. Two hundred such listings have been seen by The Times.
The app, which had 2.5 million visits last year — more than Amazon or AliExpress within the kingdom — is still available on the Apple and Google Play stores despite being criticised by the UN’s Special Rapporteurs in 2020 for facilitating modern slavery.
In Saudi Arabia, which has the third largest migrant population in the world, foreign labourers are able to live and work through the Kafala system, where a Saudi citizen known as the “Kafeel” is legally responsible for the worker and will write up their contracts and the terms of their visa.
In the past year the government said that it had “reformed” the system as part of the 2030 Saudi Vision, a plan heralded as part of its attempt to open the country up to the world. It offered what were supposedly greater freedoms, including allowing workers to open bank accounts, move jobs and leave the country without permission.
However, the new freedoms only apply to those working in private sectors, such as oil and gas. Four million women and men working as domestic workers, farmers and drivers are still restricted.
Noura admitted that she withheld her maid’s passport in a safe for more than a year, from the day she first arrived through a recruitment agency in Uganda. The retention of workers’ identity documents is a violation of international human rights and is an indicator of forced labour and abuse, according to the UN.
Every seller who spoke to The Times admitted they had been withholding their worker’s passports. Two admitted to physically disciplining their workers if they “spoke back”, and dozens said they expected their maids to work day and night without breaks for as little as £5 a day.
When asked the reason for selling her maid, Noura said: “She is a good cleaner and cook, but she cannot look after my baby. My grandmother is sick so I need the money quickly.”
Others on the site said they were auctioning their maids for profit because they were “unfamiliar with children”, “unable to speak Arabic [or English]”, “unhygienic”, “stubborn” or because their “old [worker] has come back”.
The prices vary by ethnic background. Filipino maids sell fastest and for the highest prices, and Ugandan maids are labelled by some Haraj users as “the most stubborn” and “unclean” and selling for the least amount.
The hundreds of listings uncovered by the Times were often removed only a few days after being posted, because of the high demand for experienced workers. Noura told the undercover reporter the next evening that she had sold her maid to a higher, “more serious” bidder in the Saudi city of Abha.
The Labour Laws Awareness Initiative, a Kenyan-based helpline for domestic workers in the Middle East, said it received reports of Saudi sponsors illegally selling or renting their domestic workers without official permission “every single day”, as well as hundreds of calls each month from workers reporting abuse from their sponsors.
Valery Shebna, 30, a Kenyan maid, used the helpline for assistance to leave Saudi Arabia without her sponsors’ permission and returned to Nairobi this year. She said the family she lived with for two years in Riyadh beat her every day, refused to let her return home and withheld food as a form of discipline. “I came back emotionally scarred, and without my money, my passport documents, my education certificates. All of that was kept by the couple — my bosses. They didn’t want me to leave.”
Equidem, a global human rights organisation which has a specialist team uncovering abuses experienced by domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, said the problem of trafficking maids in the kingdom had existed for decades but had recently become “akin to a humanitarian and moral crisis because of technology”.
Mustafa Qadri, its executive director, said: “Our grave fear, based on this Times investigation and our workers on the ground, is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of such cases of online human trafficking, modern slavery, gender-based harm to workers in Saudi Arabia under the radar every day. That’s a really phenomenal scale — out of control.”
Qadri accused tech giants of “facilitating the exploitation of these workers through the technology supply chain”.
Apple said: “We strictly prohibit the solicitation or promotion of illegal behaviour, 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 behaviour very seriously.”
Google declined to comment. Haraj, Saudi Arabia’s human rights commission and the government have been contacted for a response.
By Shayma Bakht, Riyadh, The Times