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Bahrain Scraps Sponsorship System

On May 6, 2009

Bahrain is to get rid of its sponsorship law which binds foreign workers to their employers as of August 1st this year. Human rights campaigners have welcomed the ruling, which will offer increased protection to migrant workers who have currently have no choice but to remain with employers that are abusive or fail to pay them.

New legislation will allow foreign workers to switch jobs, and to terminate their obligations to their employers by simply telling them that they wish to quit. Workers must submit their request by registed mail, and must see out the notice period stated in their contract - which must not exceed three months. Under the current sponsorship rules, also known as the 'kafala system', foreign workers are forbidden to leave the country without their employers permission. For more detail on the origins and implications of the kafala system, check out this blog post by migrant rights activist and law student Helen O'Reilly

Migrant female domestic workers could stand to benefit significantly from the ruling, as they are the group of expatriates that is arguably most vulnerable to abuse by their employers. Although the kafala system was originally based on the concept of 'guardianship' it commonly leads to domestic workers remaining against with employers who mistreat them. Housemaids are legally required to live with their employer, who will often take their passports away from them for 'safekeeping'. Ironically, women who escape dangerous or exploitative situations are liable to be arrested and to face long administrative detentions.

According to this report from Oct 2008, titled 'The Situation of Women Migrant Workers in Bahrain':

'The dependence created by the sponsorship system has the consequence that many domestic workers who suffer abuse do not make complaints against their employers. There have even been cases of imprisonment of victims of abuse who had left their sponsor's home in order to file a complaint'

Bahrain is the first country in the region to abolish sponsorship. Bahrain Labour Minister Majeed Al Alawi told the press that the laws would 'take Bahrain into the 21st century'. It remains to be seen how the effectively these laws will be implemented, but if enforced, they will remove a loophole which has put the welfare of female domestic workers on the line for too long.