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Do promises to end the sponsorship system hold any merit? 

On May 10, 2012

In recent years, rights organizations and advocates have gradually singled-out the sponsorship (kafala) system for engendering imbalanced employer-employee relationships that trespass onto migrant labor rights, and that put migrants at risk for exploitation. The international community has particularly criticized the unfair advantages sponsors hold over migrant workers, including their ability to prevent migrants from seeking other employment or from leaving the country without their permission. The intensifying scrutiny on sponsorship has prompted several nations to officially reconsider the system’s merits, but is there any indication that these efforts are slated to procure genuine reform?

Since 2009, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, have each announced intentions to replace the employer-centric kafala system with variable schemes regulated by government bodies. While government regulation does exist at some level in the sponsorship system, these new bodies would be empowered with much more oversight capabilities in order to ensure the rights of both employers and migrants. However, little progress has been made in transforming these intentions into reality; instead, promises of reform remain largely in the treaties, conventions, and informal negotiations created to quell diplomatic relations with migrant-sending countries at a particular moment time. As with other facets of migrant labor reform, these commitments spend years in legislative limbo and are rarely fully implemented or enforced.

In 2009, Bahrain's widely publicized "abolishment" of the system quickly proved a gesture in name only; small, technical features of the system were altered while leaving sponsorship’s legacy in tact: Sponsors became agencies rather than individual employers, while Migrants still maintain minimal occupation mobility because their legal residency remains dependent upon individual employer contracts. These cosmetic reforms were presented as an overhaul of a system that essentially still exists today.

Following Bahrain’s example, Qatar and Kuwait indicated intentions to abolish the sponsorship system as well. Both countries capitalized on the good press that followed these announcements, but neither implemented visible measures to secure permanent reform.

Recently, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon also announced schemes to replace the sponsorship system with more labor-friendly mechanisms. Neither offered a particularly concrete scope or timeline of their proposals, and both conditioned reform on approval from specific government bodies. Neither nation has historically fulfilled major commitments to migrant reform, which dampens hopes that these new programs will entail substantive change.

The functional difficulty in legislating such large-scale reform can only partly explain failures to replace the system. The absence of an authentic commitment to reform – and an ulterior motive behind reform – provides a more complete explanation; The negative attention cast on the Gulf over recent years has affected their relationship with migrant-sending nations, including their supply of preferred migrant workers. The Philippines, Indonesia, and Nepal have all implemented bans to various countries in the region. The effects of sponsorship are almost always directly or indirectly inculpated in the labor and rights abuses that these nations and NGOs cite. The image formed by the sponsorship system is consequently the primary concern of these nations – not the sponsorship system itself, nor the exploitation of migrant workers. Staes do not necessarily need to maintain safe and fair images to attract migrants, who are often willing to endure horrific conditions in order to provide remittances to their families, but rather to quell sending-countries that threaten to impede migrant supply. Image is also critical for tourism (and other international financial relationships), which rights-organizations particularly influence.

Qatar is the latest country to consider abolishment, three years after initial plans to replace the system. But recent statements by the undersecretary of the Ministry of Labor demonstrate that the government’s primary interest lies in reforming its reputation rather than in establishing equitable labor rights. In an interview with Gulf Times, he explains that the mere word  “sponsor” invokes criticism of international organization:

“Consequently, we should eradicate this term and substitute it with a contract between the two parties guaranteed by the Ministry of Labour. They (international organizations) say  the word sponsor conveys a picture of enslaving the worker more than anything else,” he said.

The term “sponsor” is troubling because it indicates the bond by which migrants are forcefully tied and subjugated to their employers. But substitution of the term “employer contract” for “sponsorship” implies that actual change to the current dynamic is not Qatar's central goal. The minister's explanation of these "reforms" is even more revealing: Under the proposed plan, migrants must still return home after resigning from a job in order to obtain a more preferable job, until the new employer creates a new contract.  That is, their legal residency and means of income is still dependent on the employer, and their occupational mobility remains constrained by conditions external to their qualifications and desires. While concern for public image is not exclusive of real reform, such strong emphasis on terminology coupled with Qatar's previous broken promises indicate that nation is set to follow Bahrain's hollow example.

In previous articles, we’ve expressed cautious hope that these efforts to abolish the sponsorship system would eventually, albeit slowly, manifest into tangible, positive, change for migrants. But if the system's recently accumulated infamy is the main (or even only) motivation behind these efforts, how can genuine reform be achieved? While the apparent receptiveness of Gulf States to the opinions of NGOs and migrant-sending nations is a positive sign, it’s unfortunate they choose to dedicate time and resources to crafting an illusionary public image rather than to establishing an authentic framework to protect the rights of migrant workers.