Kafala system


KAFALA SYSTEM

The kafala sponsorship system historically refers to the protection of foreigners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The kafala system was introduced as a national legal framework, which is now the legal basis for working conditions of migrant workers in GCC countries.1 It mainly targets migrants with low wages working in domestic industries, services and construction jobs. 2

The term kafala stands for sponsors, which means that employers take on the role of sponsors. They oversee the employment of migrant workers through direct recruitment or intermediaries. Therefore, a migrant worker’s legal status depends on the contract with their employer. Furthermore, the employer is responsible for the recruitment fees and medical exams. Changing employment as well as traveling back to the home county is only possible by the permission of the current employer. Thus, the kafala visa sponsorship system gives employers immense control over their workers. Employers often take away workers' passports and refuse to issue the exit permit needed to leave the country. The power imbalance underlines the subordinate role of the migrant worker and their vulnerability towards exploitation. The system lacks to ensure adequate working conditions as it does not protect migrant workers from harassment and physical nor psychological abuse. Human Rights Watch refers to slavery-like conditions when taking cases of abuse into account.³

Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor (2016). UAE: Extend Labor Law to Domestic Workers. https://euromedmonitor.org/en/article/1658/UAE:-Extend-Labor-Law-to-Domestic-Workers

Amnesty International (2021). End Kafala: Justice for Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2019/04/lebanon-migrant-domestic-workers-their-house-is-our-prison/

The implementation of the kafala system varies in Arab countries. Depending on the country's regulations, the kafala system restricts MDWs' independent travel to their home country. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the exit permit is used, while in Kuwait MDWs do not need an exit permit.4 However, in Kuwait, employers are responsible for the cost of the return flight to the MDW's home country, which creates a financial incentive that discourages the MDW from returning home.5

Migrant domestic workers are excluded from national labor laws. Escaping from the employer is interpreted as criminal offence which leads to deportation. Therefore, migrant domestic workers often fear of deportation and do not seek support when facing exploitative working conditions.6 For example, MDWs do not seek medical treatment when needed if they are found to be unlawful. Fear of deportation prevents MDWs from meeting their basic health needs. Employers may also use employees' fear of deportation as an incentive not to comply with legal regulations to gain more control over their employees. According to the Human Rights Foundation the kafala system is considered part of human trafficking in Saudi Arabia. The system has led to employers illegally buying and sending workers without their consent. However, the migrant workers often do not resist as they want to remain in the country.7

In our interviews with various experts, it is clear that the kafala system is one of the main reasons for the lack of labor laws and inhumane working conditions for MDWs in GCC countries.


SOURCES

  1. International Trade Union Confederation (2014). Facilitating Exploitation: A review of Labour Laws for Migrant Domestic Workers in Gulf Cooperation Council Countries. https://www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/gcc_legal_and_policy_brief_domestic_workers_final_text_clean_282_29.pdf
  2. Humans Rights Foundation (2021). Is Saudi Arabia’s Kafala System Truly Reformed?
https://hrf.org/is-saudi-arabias-kafala-system-truly-reformed/
  1. International Trade Union Confederation (2014). Facilitating Exploitation: A review of Labour Laws for Migrant Domestic Workers in Gulf Cooperation Council Countries. https://www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/gcc_legal_and_policy_brief_domestic_workers_final_text_clean_282_29.pdf
  2. Sandigan Kuwait (20.11.21). Interview Kuwait.
  3. International Trade Union Confederation (2014). Facilitating Exploitation: A review of Labour Laws for Migrant Domestic Workers in Gulf Cooperation Council Countries. https://www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/gcc_legal_and_policy_brief_domestic_workers_final_text_clean_282_29.pdf
  4. Ibid.
  5. Humans Rights Foundation (2021). Is Saudi Arabia’s Kafala System Truly Reformed?
https://hrf.org/is-saudi-arabias-kafala-system-truly-reformed/