Apple Does Not Like It When People Try To Sell Their Maids On Instagram
This week, the Wall Street Journal published an investigation revealing that Apple threatened to remove Facebook and Instagram from its app store, following a BBC report on how people in several Middle Eastern countries were using the apps to sell their maids online.
"The fuck?" you say?
Yes. This was a whole thing. And it's something that Facebook was apparently aware of before Apple threatened them, but until then "don't let your platform be used to sell enslaved people" just wasn't a priority.
The company took down some offending pages, but took only limited action to try to shut down the activity until Apple Inc. threatened to remove Facebook's products from the App Store unless it cracked down on the practice. The threat was in response to a BBC story on maids for sale.
In an internal summary about the episode, a Facebook researcher wrote: "Was this issue known to Facebook before BBC enquiry and Apple escalation?"
The next paragraph begins: "Yes."
Facebook, apparently, decided that it ought to be real delicate when telling people "Hey, don't sell your domestic workers on Instagram," because being too rude about it would "alienate buyers."
One document from earlier this year suggested the company should use a light touch with Arabic-language warnings about human trafficking so as not to "alienate buyers"—meaning Facebook users who buy the domestic laborers' contracts, often in situations akin to slavery.
Of course, they swear they never went through with that plan.
I tend to not be a very big fan of the term "human trafficking," largely because it's such a vague term, covering many disparate issues, is frequently applied to consensual sex work; and is frequently abused by people and organizations spreading misinformation. I like specifics. But there really is not a better or more specific term to describe what was and is going on here. It was and is quite literally human trafficking.
So What The Hell Is/Was Going On Here?
Many countries in the Middle East have what is referred to in English as the "Kafala system." The way migrant workers come to the country is by being sponsored by their employers, almost like an adoption, which is what Kafala literally means. People pay for a visa sponsorship for their desired employee and then bring them over.
These workers are then legally prohibited from quitting their jobs or even leaving the country without the express written consent of their employer. While they initially, at least, start these jobs voluntarily and are paid — or they're supposed to be, because there are a lot of issues there as well — the system has been (fairly) compared to slavery by human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and pretty much anyone who is not a monster.
Workers can only leave their employer if their employer "allows" them to leave or sells their visa sponsorship to another person, who then becomes their employer. This is what was going on on Instagram, as well as several other buying and selling apps.
The system is rife with abuse, sexual abuse and rape in particular. Workers who try to report their employers find that there is no recourse for them. Not only are they not believed, but because many countries in the Gulf region have zina laws, criminalizing pre-marital sex, if they report their rape to authorities and are not believed (which they usually will not be), the authorities will consider that a confession to consensual sex outside of marriage and the women will go to prison.
Traditionally, employers confiscate their employees' passports and don't let them have any days off. Some of this changed in recent years, with Bahrain claiming to have eliminated the practice and Saudi Arabia "easing" restrictions on employees leaving their employer. The government of Qatar has instituted some labor reforms, but the population has been slow to catch up. Technically, Kuwait modified their system after a Kuwaiti couple was found to have tortured, strangled, and murdered Joanna Demafelis, their Filipino maid, and left her in the refrigerator of an abandoned building. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in an unusual act of not being in favor of human rights abuses (which he normally loves), responded by barring Filipinos from working in Kuwait and demanding all current workers come home. As part of resolving the international incident, Kuwait instituted regulations on domestic workers, requiring that they be allowed to keep their passports, given an hour break for every five hours of work, one day off a week, a mobile phone and 22 vacation days (that sure is embarrassing for the US, where no one has guaranteed vacation days).
Unfortunately, many people openly flout these laws, and those who are buying and selling their domestic workers online are some of those doing that. The BBC investigation that led Apple to threaten to ban Facebook from their app store showed these "sellers" — including a cop — bragging about how, despite the new laws in Kuwait, they don't give their workers control of their own passports, give them any time off, or do literally any of the things they are supposed to be doing. And by "selling" these visa sponsorships online rather than going though more official channels, they're also making the system a lot murkier and making it a whole lot easier for employers to deny workers their legal rights.
So How Is It Going?
Facebook issued a statement in 2020 that did not mention the threat from Apple, describing what they were doing in order to avoid helping criminals sell their domestic employees.
"Following an investigation prompted by an inquiry from the BBC, we conducted a proactive review of our platform. We removed 700 Instagram accounts within 24 hours, and simultaneously blocked several violating hashtags."
The following month the company said it removed more than 130,000 pieces of Arabic-language speech content related to domestic servitude in Arabic on both Instagram and Facebook.
It added that it had also developed technology that can proactively find and take action on content related to domestic servitude - enabling it to "remove over 4,000 pieces of violating organic content in Arabic and English from January 2020 to date".
Well, that's good, and hopefully Apple holding them accountable will help to curb this issue in some small way. And then, perhaps, Apple can hold itself accountable for all of the Congolese children who die or are severely maimed while mining the cobalt the company uses in phones and laptops.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse