End the Kafala System

Each GCC country manages its “temporary” migrant workforce through the sponsorship or Kafala system. Under this system, a local citizen or local company (the kafeel) must sponsor foreign workers in order for their work visas and residency to be valid. This means that an individual’s right to work and legal presence in the host country is dependent on his or her employer, rendering him or her vulnerable to exploitation. In most GCC states, migrants cannot leave or enter the country without their employer’s permission.

End the Kafala System

Each GCC country manages its “temporary” migrant workforce through the sponsorship or Kafala system. Under this system, a local citizen or local company (the kafeel) must sponsor foreign workers in order for their work visas and residency to be valid. This means that an individual’s right to work and legal presence in the host country is dependent on his or her employer, rendering him or her vulnerable to exploitation. In most GCC states, migrants cannot leave or enter the country without their employer’s permission.

  • 2/3 of the GCC's labour force is comprised of migrant workers
  • 600,000+ workers are estimated to be in conditions of forced labour throughout the Middle east
  • 70% + of visas issued by the Saudi government are traded in the black market
  • 14,480 complaints about unpaid wages and benefits were lodged by migrant workers in Kuwait

Next: Background

End the Kafala System

Background

By obstructing the ability for migrants to change employers without the permission of their original sponsor (or by imposing high transfer fees), the system denies migrants their right to employment mobility. Migrant workers are consequently forced to endure terms that may differ from their original contract, including underpayment, excessive working hours, or other abusive conditions. Migrants that escape such conditions are considered illegal – they are not entitled to any back pay, and can be fined, indefinitely detained and deported. Migrants who cannot afford to pay for their ticket home, as well as migrants otherwise abandoned by their sponsors, can be stranded in GCC states for years. 

The high costs of recruitment associated with sponsorship instills in employers a sense of ownership; employers do not want to lose their “investment” in workers, so may confiscate passports and travel documents to prevent workers from leaving. It also justifies the dehumanization of workers as commodities rather than real workers with labor rights.

The structural dependence entrenched in the sponsorship system is frequently condemned as a conduit of modern day slavery. Be ceding regulation of migrant employment and residency to citizens and recruitment agencies, the system begets a number of legal and human rights abuses including:

  • Exploitative Recruitment Costs – Though sponsors are required to pay for all or most recruitment related costs, including visas and medical testing, the paucity in regulation of recruitment means migrants are often illegal charged placement fees or other extortive costs.

  • Debt bondage – The large debts migrant incur because of unscrupulous recruitment practices induce migrants to complete their employment contracts. Coupled with the obstacles to changing employment, this means migrants can be forced to remain in exploitative working conditions.

  • Illegal visa trading – GCC citizens may also sell their designated quotas to sponsor migrant workers to other citizens, expatriates, or companies. Migrants can be conned into putting up costs for an illegal visa, only to enter the country and realize that no company or no job exists. These migrants may then be stranded or face penalties.

  • Pushing migrants into irregular status – Sponsors’ all-consuming control over employees, the lack of employment mobility, and the obstacles to seeking employment redress are all factors in the GCC’s growing irregular migrant population. Because migrants have few accessible legal means to leave abusive or otherwise undesirable conditions, they are often forced to escape or to “abscond.” The high costs of recruitment also encourages migrants to enter GCC states undocumented.

Several states including Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have announced plans to abolish the system, but reforms so far have not yet challenged the unequal power balance between employers and migrants. For example, though Bahrain implemented measures to improve employment mobility,  substantial financial and administrative obstacles to actually transferring sponsorship still exist, and domestic workers were entirely excluded from the reforms.

The abolition of the sponsorship system would benefit migrants, employers, as well as destination and origin countries; employers would be relinquished of many legal and administrative responsibilities to workers and enjoy a more flexible pool of labor; the number of irregular migrants would be reduced, benefitting the state from a security perspective as well as allowing comprehensive management of labor markets; migrant workers would enjoy greater agency, better working conditions and improved labor rights.

 

All GCC countries implement the Kafala System.

The kafala system makes it difficult for workers to leave in situations where they are underpaid or abused.

Next: Case Studies

End the Kafala System

Case Studies

1.Bonded Labor

Individual sponsors and numerous leading firms continue to confiscate employees’ documents to protect “their investments” from leaving the country or escaping to another employer.  In a recent case disclosed to Migrant Rights, a sponsor required her domestic worker to pay 600 dirhams for her release to another employer, and thereafter prevented the worker from obtaining other employment. The worker escaped to her agency, but was told to return because her employer was rich, and because her embassy would not intervene on her behalf. The worker remained in limbo in a Dubai-based recruitment agency, with no security for remuneration or for future employment.

2.Criminalized & Stranded

Faraz Omar, an Indian expatriate, recounted an experience during which he and 15 other migrants were paralyzed in Saudi for over two years. Omar and 16 other Indian migrants were restricted from traveling and working for another company because their employer falsely lodged them as “huroob” (runaways).The migrants filed a case which was ruled in their favor but remained tied up in the court system for over two years. They were unable to transfer their sponsorship during this period and consequently unable to pursue legal employment. The workers were also informed that if they were repatriated, they would be banned from working in Saudi Arabia for three years as per the kingdom’s policy towards deported migrants. The sponsorship system’s framework consequently penalizes workers even when the state recognizes they are not in the wrong.

Omar argues that sponsors often claim to have been cheated by middle men, when in reality they exploit the visa system to increase the number of workers available to them. Unscrupulous employers attempt to circumvent the limit on visa sponsorships by illegitimately claiming employees as “huroob” in order to ‘legally’ sponsor more workers in their place. Workers rarely have access to legal instruments necessary to successfully challenge these claims.

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Next: Suggested Actions

Suggested Actions

    Governments can abolish the sponsorship system gradually, by reforming a number of critical vulnerabilities. It is essential that all reforms include domestic and agricultural workers. The UN, the ILO, and rights group such as Migrant Forum Asia and KAFA have urged GCC states to:

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    • Ratify, implement, and enforce the ILO’s core conventions as well as:
      C97 on Migration for Employment and Recommendation
      C143 Migrant Workers
      C181 on Private Employment Agencies
      C189 concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers
    • Empower the Ministry of Labor (or subordinate labor market authority) to oversee the migration process, including the recruitment, entry, residence, employment, transfer, and departure of migrant workers.
    • Regulate and inspect private employment agencies
      - Implement and enforce meaningful sanctions against agencies who overcharge or mislead workers
      - Reduce employers’ recruitment costs to reduce corresponding entitlements of debt and ‘ownership’
    • End migrant workers’ dependency on employers by:
      -Establishing employment, rather than sponsor, based visas and permitting grace periods following the termination of employment contracts
      -Permitting migrants to change employers with notice but without permission, and without losing residency status
      -Imposing penalties on employers who withhold migrants passports, travel documents, mobile phones, or other personal times
    • Improve access to legal recourse:
      -Issuing interim-work permits to migrants involved labor disputes, to encourage and provide migrants the means to report non-compliant employers

    Origin countries must protect their overseas workers by implementing pre-employment programs, by demanding protections from GCC states, and by coordinating with other origin countries.

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    • Ratify and implement the ILO’s core conventions, as well as: C97 on Migration for Employment and Recommendation C143 Migrant Workers C181 on Private Employment Agencies C189 concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers
    • Provide pre-recruitment and pre-employment training programs and materials to inform prospective migrants of their rights throughout recruitment, employment, and return stages of migration
    • Monitor and enforce regulation of recruitment agencies and hold informal subagents to the same legal standards

    Under the sponsorship system, citizens wield considerable power over migrant workers. This means that citizens can have a significant impact on the conditions workers face, even without government action.

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    • Only use licensed recruitment agencies
    • Be aware that as members of the international community, employers have legal responsibilities discordant with the disproportionate control allocated by the sponsorship system
    • Abide by current labor regulations, even if they are unenforced or unmonitored
    • Do not retain migrants passports, travel documents, or mobile phones
    • Allow domestic workers and other migrants to practice their freedom of mobility and do not keep them confined to the workspace during off-hours

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