Apple threatened to pull Facebook and Instagram from its app store two years ago over concerns about the platform being used as a tool to trade and sell maids in the Middle East, documents show.
After publicly promising to crack down, Facebook acknowledged in internal documents obtained by the Associated Press (AP) that it was “under-enforcing on confirmed abusive activity” that saw Filipina maids complaining on the social media site of being abused.
Apple relented and Facebook and Instagram remained in the app store.
But Facebook’s crackdown seems to have had a limited effect.
Even today, a quick search for “khadima”, or “maids” in Arabic, will bring up accounts featuring posed photographs of Africans and South Asians with ages and prices listed next to their images.
That is even as the Philippines government has a team of workers that do nothing but scour Facebook posts each day to try to protect desperate job seekers from criminal gangs and unscrupulous recruiters using the site.
While the Middle East remains a crucial source of work for women in Asia and Africa hoping to provide for their families back home, Facebook acknowledged some countries across the region have “especially egregious” human rights issues when it comes to labourers’ protection.
“In our investigation, domestic workers frequently complained to their recruitment agencies of being locked in their homes, starved, forced to extend their contracts indefinitely, unpaid, and repeatedly sold to other employers without their consent,” one Facebook document read.
“In response, agencies commonly told them to be more agreeable.”
The report added: “We also found recruitment agencies dismissing more serious crimes, such as physical or sexual assault, rather than helping domestic workers.”
In a statement to the AP, Facebook said it took the problem seriously, despite the continued spread of ads exploiting foreign workers in the Middle East.
“We prohibit human exploitation in no uncertain terms,” Facebook said.
“We’ve been combating human trafficking on our platform for many years and our goal remains to prevent anyone who seeks to exploit others from having a home on our platform.”
This story, along with others published on Monday, is based on disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel.
The redacted versions were obtained by a consortium of news organisations, including the AP.
Taken as a whole, the trove of documents show that Facebook’s daunting size and user base around the world – a key factor in its rapid ascent and near trillion-dollar valuation – also proves to be its greatest weakness in trying to police illicit activity, such as the sale of drugs, and suspected human rights and labour abuses on its site.
Activists say Facebook, based in Menlo Park, California, has both an obligation and probably the means to fully crack down on the abuses its services facilitate as it earns tens of billions of dollars a year in revenue.
“While Facebook is a private company, when you have billions of users, you are effectively like a state and therefore you have social responsibilities de facto, whether you like it or not,” said Mustafa Qadri, the executive director of Equidem Research, which studies migrant labour.
“These workers are being recruited and going to places to work like the Gulf, the Middle East, where there is practically no proper regulation of how they’re recruited and how they’re treated when they end up in the places where they work. So when you put those two things together, really, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Mary Ann Abunda, who works with a non-governmental Filipino workers’ welfare group called Sandigan in Kuwait, similarly warned of the danger the site can pose.
“Facebook really has two faces now,” Ms Abunda said.
“Yes, as it advertises, it’s connecting people, but it has also become a haven of sinister people and syndicates who wait for your weak moment to pounce on you.”
Facebook, like human rights activists and others worried about labour across the Middle East, pointed to the so-called “kafala” system prevalent across much of the region’s countries.
Under this system, which allowed nations to import cheap foreign labour from Africa and South Asia as oil money swelled their economies beginning in the 1950s, workers find their residency bound directly to their employer, their sponsor or “kafeel”.
While workers can find employment in these arrangements that allows them to send money back home, unscrupulous sponsors can exploit their labourers who often have no other legal recourse.
Stories of workers having their passports seized, working non-stop without breaks, and being not properly paid have long shadowed major construction projects, whether Dubai’s Expo 2020 or Qatar’s upcoming Fifa 2022 World Cup.
While Gulf Arab states such as the UAE and Qatar insist they have improved working conditions, others like Saudi Arabia still require employers to approve their workers leaving the country.
Meanwhile, maids and domestic workers can find themselves even more at risk by living alone with families in private homes.
In the documents seen by the AP, Facebook acknowledges being aware of both the exploitive conditions of foreign workers and the use of Instagram to buy and trade maids online even before a 2019 report by the BBC’s Arabic service on the practice in the Middle East.
That BBC report sparked the threat by California-based Apple to remove the apps, citing examples of pictures of maids and their biographic details showing up online, according to the documents.
Facebook engineers found nearly three-quarters of all problematic posts, including showing maids in videos and screenshots of their conversations, occurred on Instagram.
Links to maid-selling sites predominantly affected Facebook.
More than 60% of the material came from Saudi Arabia, with about a quarter coming from Egypt, according to the 2019 Facebook analysis.
In a statement to the AP, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development said the kingdom “stands firmly against all types of illegal practices in the labour market” and that all labour contracts must be approved by authorities.
While keeping in contact with the Philippines and other nations on labour issues, the ministry said Facebook had never been in touch with it about the problem.
“Obviously illegal ads posted on social media platforms make it harder to track and investigate,” the ministry said.
Saudi Arabia plans “a major public awareness campaign” soon as well on illegal recruitment practices, the ministry added.
Egypt did not respond to requests for comment.