The Kafala system is found in certain Middle Eastern countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and the Gulf countries, excluding Iraq. This program allows for the legal sponsorship of domestic workers from foreign countries to be brought in for cheap labor. With my research, I plan on studying how the Kafala System acts as a form of modern-day slavery as rights are infringed upon, taken away, and people are placed under the jurisdiction of a sponsor. Under this program, migrant workers are stripped of their rights as their passports are taken away, their visa is within the hands of their sponsor, they cannot legally quit their employment, and are subjected to dangerous living conditions, whether that be in an assigned dormitory or living with their sponsor.1 The power imbalance between the sponsors and their recipients facilitates both emotional and physical abuse, along with human rights violations. The Kafala system mostly brings in workers from non-Arab states, predominantly from South Asia or Africa, and are subject to receive below minimum wage. Salaries depend on skin-tone, country of origin, and gender, which is strikingly similar to the slavery witnessed in the Western world years ago (Robinson, 21).
Workers are not integrated nor welcomed in society and face the harsh realities of losing their rights. A victim of this system, 24-year-old Vivian from Kenya, spoke out and stated "They advertise us on social media, then the employer picks. Then we are delivered to their house. We are not told anything about the employers. You're just told to take your stuff, and a driver takes you there."2
Workers are exploited to foster cheap labor in these nations, all while their rights are stripped away seeing as they cannot leave or terminate their contract; they have no voice to speak up. The United Nations and European Union, as well as other important research organizations, have conducted studies and research into nations that utilize the Kafala system, in condemnation with their actions. The Human Rights Watch, Council on Foreign Relations, and several other scholarly sources have conducted projects on the problem of labor trafficking essentially, in specific countries of the Middle East.
As the United States takes on the global role at the moral high ground, and crowns itself as a token country for democracy, equality, and human rights activists, its alliances with these nations must be reconsidered. The Gulf countries rely heavily on their alliance with the United States, therefore our stance on the issue is critical. Action must be taken against the perpetuation of the Kafala system in order for us to truly fulfill our role as activists for equality. The US must publicly denounce the system and leverage the diplomatic tools in its arsenal to pressure Gulf countries into abolishing the Kafala System.
Reforming the Kafala System is a multi-step process. Due to the fact that this system and ideology is so institutionalized within the region, the complete upheaval of it could be seen as unrealistic.
The first step is to abolish the privatization of these relationships and migrations. Similar to Bahrain, the establishment of a labor agency is necessary. With such an institution, migrant workers who want to voluntarily immigrate and work could apply for employment visas and be granted a certain period of stay.
In doing so, the workers would no longer be dependent on private sponsors or individuals for their rights, mobility, and ability to terminate their contracts. The import and export of individuals for labor will no longer be privatized and, instead, follow a legal route which would ensure that proper records are kept, and rights are abided by. This level of institutionalization will decrease the likelihood of a black market emerging.
Moreover, migrant workers must be included in the legal forum between Gulf governments. Incorporation at the highest level will aid in the accountability process for migrant workers that have been victims of abuse or unjust activity. Such a forum would be critical in order to properly support the migrant workers who have largely become the backbone of these societies. The Insan Association put this in practice when it moderated a discussion with migrant workers and employers to got their opinion on what they would like to see moving forward.
The United Kingdom's employment-visa program was seen as a successful and adequate model for what these workers hoped to achieve; 65% of employers approved of the implementation of the UK model in Lebanon.3 This program provided a visa for those seeking domestic employment in the UK—avoiding a sponsor-type relationship such as in the Kafala system. The domestic worker is ensured labor protections and is not required to reside with their employer. Moreover, the employee has the flexibility to leave and terminate the contract at any time.4 By following this program, the government regulation of the employer-employee relationship is present, as well as the protection of the workers' rights.
A key part of granting these individuals rights is ensuring fair pay; meaning that an adequate federal minimum wage must be set and monitored in order to guarantee a non-exploitative environment. To guarantee that rights are not infringed upon, and the people are taken care of physically and mentally, a human rights watch committee should be installed within the labor agencies of these countries, and the establishment of unions should be permitted.
Among other negative side effects, the Kafala system promotes institutionalized racism. In most cases, migrant workers desperately want independence, freedom, and protections from the government under which they work; one individual stated that she would receive no salary if it meant she could obtain a visa and no longer be held under a sponsor in Lebanon.5 Since 2009, countries in the Gulf have taken steps in order to alleviate some of the injustices that come from the Kafala system, however, much of the attempted reforms have been unsuccessful. Since 2009, Bahrain has been the leading country in terms of tangible reform after it declared a dismantling of the Kafala System. This mean that importing and exporting migrant workers would no longer be privatized, and instead operate under a newly established government authority known as the "Labor Market Regulatory Authority". This initiative also removed the requirement that a migrant's right to enter and exit depended on the employer.6 Kuwait also attempted to create changes to the system. Instead, however, the country ended up passing legislation that made it easier for sponsors to trade their sponsored workers.7 Migration to the Gulf serves as the third largest migration flow in the world.8 Such a high migration rate to one locality deserves to be examined, especially when the migrants are facing grave human rights abuses. The conditions these workers face are inhumane, as Andrew Gardner observed first-hand:
"[Labor] camps may consist of decrepit buildings, ad hoc structures, or aging villas in older suburban neighborhoods. Men often live eight or more to a room. Many of these camps have scarce supplies of electricity or water. The camps themselves are frequently found in the peri-urban and industrial hinterlands of the city, which prevents the migrants from obtaining groceries, from socializing, and, more generally, from moving about the city during the few periods of time they are not working or sleeping."
These conditions prove the significance of resolving the Kafala System and providing reform in order to protect human rights.
The cruelty of the Kafala system has gained more global attention in recent years. Participating states all have legal documentation establishing the Kafala system, making investigations into rights violations relatively accessible. When it comes to the underground effects of the Kafala system, analyzing interviews, journals, and studies into the victims and their experiences will be most helpful.
Analyzing where controversy, abuse, and harm is rooted in the system is the first step toward identifying possible solutions.
The next step is to identify the actors in this problem. and that would be the governments of these countries (The Gulf, Lebanon, and Jordan), the individual actors that utilize the system, and the victims. Once the actors are identified and confirmed, formulating policy proposals will follow.
However, it is important to note the obstacles that may curtail reform in these states. The International Labor Organization's Migrant Forum in Asia stated that the "success of these policies is dependent, in part, on the number of unemployed, the willingness of nationals to take low profile jobs, and the private sectors' willingness to employ nationals, which would mean forgoing the 'business advantage of cheap labor".9 Unfortunately, much of the native populations in these states do not often desire low-skilled labor. Instead, domestic populations will pursue "higher-end" jobs or leave the country. This mindset pushes the Gulf governments away from pursuing reform, as their local populations would be forced to integrate themselves into the labor market in ways they may deem unpreferable. Another concern is that employing local people into the domestic workforce will require better protections and labor laws. In Phillip Fargues' "Immigration without Inclusion," he concluded that employing Asians rather than Arabs provides governments and employers a shield as the migrants are less likely to voice their concerns and ask for reform.10
Abolishing the Kafala system on its own will not fix socioeconomic segregation within these societies. Having a "Kafeel" has evolved as a symbol of wealth and success, and that discriminatory ideology has, unfortunately, become ingrained into people's minds. These migrant workers must have institutionalized protections in place in order to ensure a safe, healthy, and successful working environment.
About the Author
Nada Moghazi is an Egyptian-American, first year MAIR student with a regional focus on the Middle East. She is currently a research assistant for Professor Sergey Radchenko, with a strong passion for research, political journalism, and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Affairs.
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