“The kafala system is more than a legal construct” – an interview with Andrew Gardner

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Jun 10 2014

In this conversation with Andrew Gardner, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Puget Sound, we discuss migration policies in the Gulf region. For over a decade, Gardner has researched migration in Bahrain and Qatar exploring the structural hardships that immigrants are faced with in the region. He is the author of City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and The Indian Community in Bahrain and editor of Constructing Qatar: Migrant Narratives from the Margins of the Global System.

In 2012, Bahrain claimed to have 'abolished' the kafala system, only renaming it. Also lately Qatar made a similar announcement, without offering a detailed plan. Do you expect any positive changes following these promises?

Obviously, the details of Qatar's plan matter a lot, particularly since we have Bahrain's experience to gauge these changes against. Note that while I published a book about my research in Bahrain in 2002 and 2003, I never have had the opportunity to return to the island, so I have no firsthand knowledge or understanding of the impact of the changes that were instigated (and as an anthropologist, I value that firsthand knowledge above all else). Nonetheless, the changes to the migration system in Bahrain, hailed as the "abolishing of the kafala," were more about relocating the right for migrants to change positions from their sponsor to the LMRA. At the time, this could be read as a fairly substantial change to the kafala, but the research I've read and the migrants I've talked with don't describe any substantial change in their experiences on the island. Thinking about the region as a whole, in my mind all of this points to a few basic conclusions.

First, we need to recognize that these headlines and declarations of abolishing the kafala are really the prime currency resulting from these proposed, incremental changes, for they allow the Gulf States to broadcast their evolving positionality in a global index of modernity that, thankfully, I suppose, includes EuroAmerican-styled ideas about individual human rights.

Second, I think it is important that we understand the kafala not as a singular and stable thing, but rather as a collection of laws, practices, norms, and traditions that undergird this contemporary migration system. Interwoven with it is a globally-accepted system of legal contracts that really achieve many of the same ends -- locking migrants to particular jobs for specific periods of time, for example.

Third, and related: so while aspects of the kafala may be "abolished" in some GCC states in the coming decade, I am not certain that we'll see any substantial changes in the migrant experience, as these contracts foster the same kind of control that is the critical and criticized facet of the kafala. The barometer by which we evaluate that change in any of the GCC states should be migrants' experiences.

Have you noticed any shifts in official narratives about migrant issues?

I have not noticed any specific, recent changes in official narratives of migrant issues in Qatar, but I have not been present in Qatar nearly as much over this last year. Colleagues have reported more difficulty obtaining data and other information from the various ministries that oversee the migrant presence on the peninsula. I would definitely say that these reports echo some of my anxieties about the current situation. I have been somewhat critical about the shrill and accusatory tone that many reports and some journalism takes with this issue, and I'm concerned that the growing global scrutiny to this issue will further exacerbate the state's reticence to foster transparency on this issue. From my vantage point, Qatar's previous willingness to allow and encourage citizen-researchers and foreign researchers to explore these complex issues was a significant advantage, and one that was notably aligned with the peninsula's aspirations to build a "knowledge-based economy and society." I believe that journalism that plays to this global politics of shaming Qatar really risks sacrificing that transparency and collegiality in seeking to solve these problems. It also oftentimes falls into lockstep with the zombie Orientalisms that stagger through our contemporary world, and it fails to apprehend this migration system as the TRANSNATIONAL and profit-seeking industry that it is.

How do you see grassroots work among migrants in the Gulf? Any hopes?

I don't see grassroots work amongst migrants leading to much practical or political change in the region. In general, the region's migration system is really structured to prevent these sorts of results, and while I know that fear of some sort of revolutionary uprising looms large in the minds of some citizens and host states, I don't see this anxiety grounded in any sort of reality. No migrant I've ever spoken with desires anything except to work and get paid. They don't really even want to be there. They're there because they have no better options in their underdeveloped home states. Over the years, I recognize that some grassroots work has made some difference to some migrants for some period of time, but meaningful change will have to come from above, I believe. That said, I believe grassroots action is essential to understanding and measuring the problem and the issue.

How do you read the ongoing crackdowns on migrants; notably, in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. 

I read the ongoing crackdown on migrants as mechanisms by which the state appeases the citizenry's anxieties about the astonishing proportion of migrants present in the region, and little more. These crackdowns are typically levied against groups of undocumented migrants that are produced by the stresses and frictions inherent to the kafala and the exploitations that it fosters. For example: many migrants are simply not paid the wages promised to them by sponsors or the sponsor's proxies; they "abscond" from the only job they are legally allowed to hold; they become undocumented or "illegal" workers under the kafala; they are targeted by various policing arms of the state in "crackdowns" -- this is a vicious circle that I've been observing for over a decade.

Domestic workers are excluded from labor laws in some GCC countries. They also happen to be overwhelmingly women. With what mechanisms can the gender aspect be addressed in local migration debates?

I really don't feel informed enough to address your last question. I recognize that many of the frictions produced by the kafala system are particularly acute for workers in the domestic sphere, and that many avenues to the agency that other migrants use to address the challenges they face are unavailable in the domestic sector (the law, migrant social networks, mobility in the city, absconding, for example). In a sense, though, they are in a double bind: a predominately female workforce in a significantly patriarchal sociocultural context, and a portion of the workforce excluded from support in the legal foundations established for transnational labor in the region. We can hope that as khaleeji women continue making inroads into these societies' public spheres and domains of power, that this will lead to tectonic reconsiderations of the place of this particular workforce in these host societies, perhaps. I know that even in my short time working in the region (1999 - present), I've seen significant change in the gender dynamics internal to these societies. I suppose that's where my hope can be found.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East