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Migrant Workers under the “Kafala” System in the GCC

On November 23, 2010

by Salim Essaid

36 year old Kikim Komalasari’s murder has lead to an investigation by the Indonesian government to look into the details of this migrant worker who was found in a dumpster in the town of Abha, Saudi Arabia. Kikim was a housemaid allegedly slashed across the neck by her employers in yet another case of domestic worker exploitation and abuse.

It is difficult to imagine that slavery exists so openly in today’s world, but for migrant workers indentured servitude is the reality of their daily life.  These workers usually come from uneducated and impoverished backgrounds from South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia or the Philippines. Kikim Komalasari is one of these people lured by desperation to find work opportunities in order to improve their life and support their family abroad.

Yet as they leave their spouse, children, and the life they know to start this new one in a foreign country, they are quick to discover upon arrival at the airport the complete dependence they will have on their new employer as they have no choice but to hand in their passport along with their human rights.

This sponsoring system that involves withholding a worker’s passport is known as “kafala”, a routine practice in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to regulate the residency and employment of foreign workers. This system signifies the hold that an employer will have on these foreign workers.  A migrant worker’s salary, living accommodations, meals, ability to work elsewhere, and even their ability to return home are at the mercy of their employer.

The US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said “Migrant workers complain about unpaid wages, excessive working hours, heavy debt burdens from exorbitant recruitment fees, isolation and forced confinement resulting in physical and psychological abuse.”

In addition, labor laws in these states are usually in favor of protecting the employer who is a citizen of the state rather than the foreigner who is not, which leaves the treatment and well being of these workers to the will of the employer.

When an employer is given such power over their employees, we hear stories such as V.R. Lechchmi’s where she told Al Jazeera reporters of when she asked her employers for her salary after she was not paid six months of work. Her answer was fourteen nails inserted into her body. She described the event “The master of the house held me down, while the mistress gave him the metal pins to put into my hands and legs… ...I endured the pain in silence because I thought I may be killed if I struggled.” It is not only the physically abusive treatment that is damaging but also the psychological and emotional hold used to take away their voice to speak out.

This type of abuse also affects men who commonly migrate to these states to perform unwanted and low paying heavy-labor construction work.  In a recent example, thousands of migrant construction workers were left stranded in Dubai and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as their employers fled due to the sudden drop of the Dubai economy. They cannot afford to leave or afford to stay having not been paid for months of work. These foreign workers are now stranded in crowded camps under intense heat without food or basic utilities let alone necessary air conditioning.

As a result the men cannot send money home to feed their families or even feed themselves. To get these jobs in the first place, many workers resorted to borrowing money at amounts of around  $2000 to $4000 to pay fees illegally demanded by recruitment agencies in order to be hired. So on top of being unable to survival these migrant workers have an increasing debt looming over them. Shaikh, an aid worker describes the common effect that this sudden misfortune has on these workers to reporter Erica Solomon from Reuters “That’s why we see suicides happen, noting that the suicide rate had spiked since last year. They (the migrant workers) think if they kill themselves the loan sharks will leave their families at home alone. But they don’t. They still go after them.”

The UAE, along with the other states of the GCC, created this influx of foreign workers over the short period of approximately 50 years as the oil boom provided them the wealth and these workers provided the labor at low costs to transform them from sheikhdoms to modern states. The population in the GCC states was 4 million in 1950 and increased to 40 million in 2006, making this population jump one of the highest in the world.

The United Nations provides demographics for the populations in these states in their Migrant Workers in the Middle East research report:

“Towards the end of 2004, the year of the latest relatively reliable statistics, the GCC states were inhabited by 12.5 million foreigners, who constituted 37 percent of the total population. In Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait, foreigners constituted a majority; in the United Arab Emirates they accounted for over 80 percent of population. Only Oman and Saudi Arabia managed to maintain a relatively low proportion of foreigners: about 20 and 27 percent respectively.”

A lesser percentage of foreigners in these statistics hold professional and even governmental jobs, but the greater majority are foreigners performing menial labor jobs under this Kafala system.

The UAE has been recognized for making changes to labor laws involving migrant workers after pressure from the international community heightened as a result of the 71 page report called “Building Towers, Cheating Workers” by the Human Rights Watch (HRW). These changes amended the labor laws of migrant workers to improve living and work conditions, health benefits, and give protection from employers unwilling to pay salaries.

Despite these efforts, the degree to which the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers exists is still high as is demonstrated by the investigation into the murder of housemaid Kikim Komalasari.

Al Jazeera, Reuters, The Huffington Post,,, United Nations: Migrant Workers in the Middle East research