The notorious Kafala system has restricted the socio-economic mobility of migrant workers across the Arabian Gulf over the oil-development decades and currently binds more than 23 million migrant workers to their employers. Founded upon the region’s Bedouin principle of hospitality, the Kafeel, also informally known as the guardian, was obliged to offer their guests temporary shelter and provisions such as sustenance and protection. With the discovery of oil in the 1930s, the region suddenly became host to a large migrant population, because they provided the critical skilled and unskilled labor needed for the large-scale oil-funded development projects. Resulting from their rapid influx, the governments throughout the Arabian Gulf required a governance strategy that would regulate the socio-economic mobility of the migrant labor force and thus, the Kafala was formally adopted.
This system sets the mandate that the employers, who are to be national citizens of the respective Gulf state, must sponsor the migrant workers in order for them to obtain a valid work permit and residency visa. It has also served a crucial socio-political purpose, because as migrant workers are rendered transient, even if they stay in the host country for decades, they are prohibited from acquiring citizenship and oil-induced socio-economic benefits that are reserved for the national citizens. Thus, the adoption of the Kafala System has helped alleviate society’s negative perceptions of there being a large migrant presence in their countries. Indeed, with sweeping and profound socio-economic transformations taking place across the region with their various new development visions, it needs to be questioned by the region’s governments as to whether the archaic Kafala system can be, or should be, part of their redrawn political economy.
The plight of migrant workers under the system is well documented and has increasingly received criticism from the international community because as it restricts the socio-economic mobility of the migrants, it has often resulted in their entrapment and working in conditions akin to modern-day slavery. Whereby their work is often not remunerated for, or severely delayed by months and even years. Whilst an alarming amount of migrants, especially domestic workers experience sustained psychological and physical abuse and in too many cases, are killed by their Kafeels. Exacerbating this issue further is that they often find themselves trapped in such horrific working environments because they are not able to leave due to the illegal, yet widespread practice, of the Kafeel confiscating the migrant’s passport and identity documents. The Kafala system, therefore, has exacerbated the extreme power imbalance between the migrant workers and their sponsoring employers.
With the spotlight on Qatar, human rights activists have called upon the international community to boycott the country during the 2022 World Cup, due to the high number of migrant workers’ death associated with construction projects. In 2017 alone, there were more than 1200 migrant deaths at the construction sites which are to be used to host the games. With just four years to go, the international community called upon Qatar to address its sponsorship system and with the Saudi-led blockade on the small GCC state having no end in sight, the Qatari government has had to respond if they are to maintain their diplomatic and economic ties with the global community.
In response, the government signed an agreement that sought to honor the rights of migrant workers, by reforming the human and employment-based rights available to them and included a minimum wage, workplace committee representation, and lodging their contracts with the government to prohibit changes upon their arrival by the sponsor. Whilst more recently, the new Law No. 13 of 2018 was introduced and partially scraps the exit permit by enabling many migrant workers to leave the country without obtaining the permission from their Kafeel. These measures have been welcomed by many global actors, who deem Qatar to be moving in the right direction in regulation and treatment of its migrant workers because if they continue to pursue these reforms, it will improve their human rights record and geopolitical standing. It is important to highlight, however, that such measures are not applied to domestic workers, who are not covered by the Labour Law yet are most vulnerable under the Kafala System. So although there is promising progress made in Qatar, it still falls short in offering basic rights to many migrant workers.
Whilst looking to Kuwait, 2018 was the year when the Philippines finally took action against the abuse of Filipino workers at the hands of their Kafeels. With increasing reports of Filipino domestic workers committing suicide or dying at the hands of their employers, the Philippine President Roderigo Duterte prohibited any further Filipino domestic workers moving to Kuwait and assisted the repatriation of any workers who wanted to leave. This caused bilateral ties between the two states to become severely strained and as a result, the Kuwaiti government had to address its sponsorship system and the plight of its migrant domestic workers, especially those of Filipino nationality. In response, Kuwait signed a labor agreement on May 11th 2018 that would prohibit the Kafeels from confiscating the migrants’ documentations and passports, alongside creating a better working environment whereby the workers are to receive their salary on a regular basis, have a 12-hour period of rest and crucially, access to a hotline where they can report abuse. However, although the measures are again in the right direction, the agreement lacks any substantial penalties and so, many of the rogue Kafeels will feel no obligation to implement the agreement.
Evidently, these widespread issues across the Arabian Gulf are not only incompatible with modern labor practices, but contradictory to the progressive narratives advocated under the new development visions. For these states to maintain their public image as pursuing radical yet necessary socio-economic transformations, it is more important than ever that the Kafala System is seriously overhauled. Or better yet, it is abolished and replaced with a regulatory mechanism that protects even the basic rights of migrant workers. It also needs to be recognized that the system has evolved into an abusive mechanism because of the belief amongst many rogue Kafeels that they have the right to treat their migrant employees inhumanely. As any decent human being would attest to, they do not have the right to abuse and mistreat their employees and should be made accountable by their respective governments if they are found to be in breach of such a basic standard of common decency. Indeed, as reforms and propositions to abolish the Kafala System have been on the agenda of the region’s governments for decades, any progress made in reforming the Kafala should be treated with caution.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a political economist and works as a Research Officer at the London School of Economics Middle East Centre. Her research focuses on the transforming political economies and emerging geopolitical dynamics of the Gulf Cooperation Council States in the post-oil dependent era.