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The Sponsorship System and Domestic Labor in Saudi Arabia

On September 22, 2010

Kafala Politics and Domestic Labor in Saudi Arabia
by R. B.

As we prepare to land at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport, I grudgingly wear my abaya and wrap the headscarf around my neck. A few Saudi men in jeans and t-shirts rush to the bathrooms and change into their long, white thobes. When we touch down, I call my wakil, a male agent who has to be physically present in lieu of my male guardian to “collect me.” The word in Arabic is yistilimni. I ask him to meet me at the immigration counter. A few meters outside the door of the plane is the VIP entrance, which royalty and prominent Saudi citizens can access. A crowd of wukala (sing. wakil) hovers there to greet their clients, whom they escort to the male or female-only lounges, where plush couches and large television screens await and coffee and tea are served. The wukala then handle the legal procedures, collect the suitcases, and take the VIPs to their chauffeured cars, parked outside the lounges. I walk by the guarded VIP door, through the muggy halls of the airport, and stand in the “Foreigner” lane. I am third in line, and will be processed relatively quickly, unlike the African or Asian workers waiting in the “Exit-Reentry Visa” lane. There is no immigration officer at their counter. He went for a coffee break. Or to the bathroom. It is not clear. I try to silently figure it out, but an officer chatting with my wakil yells for me to jump the queue and approach his desk. As he stares at my passport, I inquire about the standing lanes next to us. He smirks. He tells me not to think about “it”, and signals for me to go through.

But I could not stop thinking about it. In Riyadh, unlike in New York, it was much harder for me not to think about the lived experiences of migrant laborers, particularly domestic workers. Not because labor conditions of domestic workers in New York are that much better. In both cities, domestic workers, on average, earn comparable hourly wages, work 15-hour days, face daunting immigration laws, and are vulnerable to verbal and physical violence, humiliation, and legal discrimination. As a matter of fact, New York State only passed the first Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in US history on September 2nd of this year. The labor laws in the remaining 49 states, as in Saudi Arabia, continue to exclude domestic workers from labor rights and protections afforded other workers. But in Riyadh and other Saudi cities I visited, the harsh living conditions, racial prejudice and discriminatory practices that domestic workers endure on a daily basis are blatantly more visible, socially accepted and legally sanctioned. And crimes, such as rape, torture, or murder, against domestic workers are only investigated or prosecuted when perpetrated by other migrant workers. In Saudi Arabia, the injustices suffered by migrant domestic workers the world over, as well as consequences of our attendant silence, are multiplied and that much more consequential.

This pronounced legal, social, and economic discrimination is no secret in migrant-source countries. Aware of the work conditions that await them, tens of thousands of domestic workers from South and East Asia and East Africa leave their parents, children, siblings, friends, and homes, indefinitely, to join the 1.5 million migrant domestic labor force in Saudi Arabia. They do not have the privilege to heed their countries’ travel warnings, and in some cases, travel bans, like the one in India that prohibits single women under the age of 40 from traveling to Saudi Arabia. Those who migrate legally usually arrive there on 1) A residency permit, arranged by recruiting agencies that match the worker to the household and charge both parties a recruitment fee. Workers often become indebted to the agencies and spend months repaying them; or 2) A Hajj or Umrah visa, valid for one month, after which the pilgrims do not report back to the Hajj agency that processed their legal documents, as they are supposed to. Instead, they become illegal and get lost in the dark underbelly of the informal labor Market. In most cases, migrant domestic workers leave their homes not in search of a better future for themselves, but a better present for their families. Their salaries- when actually paid and not withheld or reduced by their employers- are barely enough to sustain loved ones back home for a few weeks. In Saudi Arabia, where there is no minimum wage, the average monthly salary of a domestic worker varies according to nationality, race, religion, and work skills, and ranges between US$ 200-400. The prevalent justification for such a low salary is its high purchasing power in countries such as Ethiopia, India, or the Philippines. It is considered a huge amount of money for “them,” I am told. “They” don’t enjoy the luxury items we do. Their salaries are enough to support “their” families. And “what more could they ask for” or “they have it so much better here” are also common refrains. A typical workday for domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is 15 hours. At US$ 7-14 per day, their average hourly wage amounts to less than one dollar per hour. Coming from a poor country should not justify, or legitimate, such exploitation and dehumanization.

Those who have grown up with domestic servants, whether in Dubai, Lebanon, or London, have heard variants of this prevalent argument. It is not particular to Saudi Arabia. Nor are the justifications for confiscating domestic servants’ passports; withholding their wages; restricting their movement; and completely isolating them within their workplace, in the name of protecting one’s “investment.” Such measures alone may not be sufficient to prevent a domestic worker from escaping her oppressive labor conditions. However, combined with state laws that relegate all power over the domestic servant to the employer, they just might be. In Saudi Arabia, as in all GCC countries, migrant domestic workers must obtain an iqama, a residency permit that allows them to work, through a legal resident or national of Saudi Arabia, who then becomes their kafeel, or sponsor. The kafala, or sponsorship system, is the legal foundation that binds a migrant domestic worker to one kafeel. The kafeel has the power to alter the terms of the employment contract; transfer the kafala to another employer without the worker’s consent; repatriate the worker without prior notice; and ban the worker from re-entering the country, among other things. Saudi nationals can also make a living out of trading kafalas, or the workers’ legal right to work. Some do so by transferring kafalas to eligible buyers at a profit of US$ 800-1900. Others make use of legally registered, non-existent businesses to sponsor large numbers of migrant domestic workers. The latter are then allowed to work for an employer of their choice- as drivers, gardeners, or cooks- as long as they pay their kafeel an agreed upon monthly fee. Ironically, this empowers the workers by increasing their negotiating power with their future employers, who in turn save money by not paying the cost of the kafala and related fees.

Despite the efforts of several NGOs, domestic workers in Saudi Arabia continue to have no employment protection and little recourse to the law. The Saudi Labor Law explicitly protects citizen employees. It also outlines foreign workers’ rights, privileges, and responsibilities. This is largely due to the 1950s strikes in which oil workers protested the discriminatory and harsh conditions under which they labored at ARAMCO, as compared to their American counterparts. However, the Labor Law specifically excludes migrant domestic workers from the provisions of such law because they work for private households and are not considered “employees”, as stated in article 7 of Section 2, Chapter 1. Those few who manage to file legal suits against their employers are often deported before their cases are even reviewed by judges. But more alarming are the cases of workers who are denied access to Saudi courts and who do not secure their kafeel’s written consent to leave the country. They remain in legal limbo. The sponsorship system in Saudi Arabia (as in Kuwait) stipulates that migrant domestic workers obtain an “exit-visa” from their sponsors in order to leave. The exit-visa requirement alone has compounded the already exploitative structure of the sponsorship system. It is responsible for hundreds of foreign domestic workers being stranded- at any given day- inside their embassies or consulates in Riyadh and Jeddah, respectively, without diplomatic appeal or hope of returning home. It enables employers to coerce workers into submitting to their unfair work conditions. It has also caused thousands of domestic workers, 19,000 in the year 2000 alone according to the International Labor Organization, to escape their employers’ homes and become part of a significant subgroup of the illegal migrant population.

Let me elaborate on this last point. Illegal migrant workers often find informal work easily, due to the consistently high demand for housekeepers, nannies, drivers, and cooks in Saudi Arabia. Some less fortunate ones are forced into prostitution. A few become so destitute they sell what body organs they can in order to support themselves and their families. Illegal workers become especially vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse and coercion. They are at the mercy of their employers, who overwork them, underpay them, and threaten reporting them to the police. Some, however, find employers who are willing to legally sponsor them. In such cases, the new employers attempt to pay off the illegal migrant’s kafeel to transfer the kafala to their name. Such efforts are not always successful. To obtain a new iqama without the approval of the kafeel, a worker must first return to her home country. If Saudi immigration catches an illegal worker attempting to leave the country without an exit-visa, they either fine her US$ 3000 and return her to her kafeel, or in rare cases, they immediately deport her and ban her from returning to Saudi Arabia. In order to circumvent these legal barriers, many illegal workers resort to trafficking networks. For a fee that ranges from US$ 1500-3000, traffickers- many of whom allegedly work for immigration services- will smuggle them out of the country without leaving a paper trail of their illegal status or departure date. If successful, and the illegal workers make it home- for not all do- they apply for a new iqama. The process can take up to two months, during which they visit loved ones, reacquaint themselves with their countries, and recuperate from their travails. As they prepare for their return to Saudi Arabia, all they can do is hope for the best.

Migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia are doubly trapped. They lack legal, economic and human rights, as well as the power to change employers if they are in an abusive employment situation. And they do not have the legal freedom to return home without their sponsor’s consent. That these violations are blatantly visible, acceptable, and legally sanctioned in Saudi Arabia are particular to the country’s socio-economic history, especially since the oil boom years of the 1980s. But the phenomena that enable such abuses to undergird domestic labor life in Saudi Arabia are the same as those that have kept this category of labor outside the contours of formal recognition and made it the most exploited labor group in the world. They are a result of a global mechanism of othering and dehumanizing rooted in racial, national, religious and ethnic prejudice, and reified by the fact that the private nature of the workplace falls outside the purview of the state. Migrant domestic workers’ otherness and governments’ failure to protect them play into their mistreatment and abuse everywhere. Singling out the Arab Middle East, and resorting to religious and cultural essentialism to explain the pronounced abuse of domestic workers there will not do much in terms of furthering the rights and living conditions of domestic workers anywhere.

Originally appeared in Jadaliyya and re-posted here with permission.