Kafala as a business; kafeel as a career

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Using the power of their signature and their access to multiple domestic workers' visas, for some citizens in the GCC, the kafala system turns into a revenue stream.

Jun 4 2015

The writer is the Associate Editor of Migrant-Rights.org and Strategic Adviser to the Shelter Me Project.

Vijaya* puts away a part of her income every month. Each March, she uses those savings to renew her residence visa and to pay the kafeel her annual fee. In the 20 years she has been in Qatar she has had three kafeels. Her last visa transfer was two years ago. She has to keep her current ‘madam’ happy as she will not be able to transfer her visa for a third time.

Kafala governs the recruitment, employment, and residency of migrant workers of all economic class and profession. To be a kafeel is to wield inexplicable powers; and to be the kafeel of a worker with a ‘free visa’ is highly lucrative. That one signature on a piece of paper can fetch anywhere around QR10,000 for the first year, and between QR5000 and QR7000 ($1200-1800) annually for the period of sponsorship. The kafala system then becomes a part-time business and a professional calling in itself.

If you give out two or three such visas, you make about $5500. It doesn’t seem much in the Qatari context, but as Vijaya points out, it meets a need for many who may not have family support or regular income.

This is not a phenomenon exclusive to Qatar, and is in fact more widespread in countries like Saudi.

A 2012 report by University of California, Davis highlights this:

Because migrants from many migrant-sending countries are willing to pay $500 or $1,000 for sponsorships, some local citizens profit by sponsoring migrant workers they do not intend to employ. These payments to sponsors make it hard for GCC governments to abolish the kafala system.

Vijaya doesn’t mind paying that fee for her freedom. This way, she can choose to work in multiple homes, make more money, give herself a weekly off, work fewer hours and not really expose herself daily to the whims of one employer. It’s a free market. This kind of irregular work visa is deemed ‘illegal’ in Qatar and across the GCC.

All these ‘privileges,’ or basic rights, are not extended to many migrant domestic workers in the region. Last year’s Amnesty report on Qatar’s domestic workers ‘My sleep is my break’ highlighted that some women worked up to 100 hours a week, and were subject to deception and abuse.

Human Rights Watch’s report on UAE ‘I already bought you’ records similar stories: no mobility, confined to employer’s home, no off day and working up to 21 hours a day.

Vijaya lives here with her husband. He doesn’t earn enough to acquire a family visa (minimum requirement of QR10000 monthly), but for this middle-aged couple, the arrangement they’ve made for themselves in Qatar has changed their lives. They are saving for retirement now, having helped their now adult children settle into marriage and work.

Every few months the new kafeel would summon all the domestic workers under her sponsorship and demand money or threaten cancellation.


Recounting her story to Migrant-Rights.org, Vijaya says she had just one unpleasant experience. She had been with her first sponsor for over a decade. When his son married and the family grew, they needed to use the visa for themselves. She had an option to live and work in his home or find another sponsor to free up the visa.

She chose to transfer. That year, she had to pay him QR2000 as a ‘thank you’ for signing the transfer papers. Vijaya also had to pay the new sponsor QR10,000. However, with the new sponsor, the next few years were rife with threats and demands. Every few months the new kafeel would summon all the domestic workers under her sponsorship and demand money or threaten cancellation.

“Madam had personal issues. She was a single mother, and I don’t think her husband was being supportive. So she was making money from us whenever she was in a crunch.” The statements are matter-of-fact. No judgements, no blame. These arrangements are critical for her and many like her, and anyone who helps them with it is seen as a ‘friend’.

Three years later, the kafeel asked them to raise the annual fee to QR10,000 or transfer to a new sponsor, after paying her a ‘release fee’. Vijaya sought out a new sponsor, knowing well that if things fell apart with the new sponsor, she would either have to leave the country or become undocumented to continue working in Qatar.

Many of her friends who work on similar arrangements are undocumented and don’t possess their passports.

The ‘runaway’ risk

Only with the first sponsor did Vijaya have to surrender her passport. She didn’t see that as a problem. With subsequent sponsors she has kept her passport as their ‘operations were small and didn’t have a personal mandoop.’

The ‘mandoop,’ also referred to as a PRO, is the one who manages visa renewals, exit permits and other such immigration related paperwork for employers.

Holding the passport gives Vijaya a greater sense of security, even though she is aware her sponsor can still file a complaint if displeased.

Many of her friends who work on similar arrangements are undocumented and don’t possess their passports. They constantly run the risk of being picked up by the Search and Follow-up Department (SFD) of the Ministry of Interior, colloquially addressed as ‘CID’. The SFD spends an inordinate amount of time and resources policing what they consider ‘illegal’ migrants.

Just in the last week, four of Vijaya’s friends were ‘caught’ and taken to the detention centre.

One of those captured is very elderly and has stayed here for nearly 30 years. She has thyroid and diabetes, and knows doctors willing to treat her for free. She has no one to go back to, says Vijaya.

The ‘brokers’ who find sponsors are usually Asian drivers with a good network. They know which families have extra visas, and which ones need some quick cash. They also get a commission from the workers. Though Vijaya, considered a matriarch in the community, was spared this.

For many employers, the investment and hassle of hiring a full-time, live-in domestic worker is intimidating.

Huge demand

The demands for workers on this ‘free’ visa is huge. With sending countries either insisting on higher minimum wage (like the Philippines) or completely banning workers from coming to the GCC (like Indonesia), the demand far outweighs the supply. Many migrant rights organizations believe outright bans however are not an ideal solution as they lead to further isolation of existing workers, and increase trafficking of those still determined to find a livelihood through migration.

Saudi Arabia is the worst hit as this recent report, entitled ‘Maid’ to Suffer: Sans help, Saudi families see tough Ramadan, highlights. An increasing number of countries are refusing to send their women to the Kingdom, as they find the working conditions harsh and dangerous.

For many employers, the investment and hassle of hiring a full-time, live-in domestic worker is intimidating. Costs of recruitment are prohibitive even if actual salaries are affordable. Then there’s the issue of privacy: unless you live in a large independent housing unit or a compound that is planned with service accommodation, there is little scope for a separate room for the maid or nanny. Even newer developments in Qatar don’t include this in floor plans. Whereas, in the UAE most new developments include a room–even if box-sized–for the ‘maid’.

The Ministry of Interior issues regular warning against employing ‘runaway maids’ and paints them as a threat to the family’s security. This is in keeping with the regional narrative where employers see themselves and their families as a victim in employing domestic workers.

Still, this does not deter individuals from employing the ‘runaways’.

Why this market thrives

We continue to learn more about the freelance market, as hundreds of employers are being interviewed through surveys and focus groups as part of an advocacy project in region, undertaken jointly by Hivos and Migrant-Rights.org.

In Qatar, recruitment costs can go from anywhere between QR6000 to QR15000, with no assurance the candidate will meet the requirements stipulated by the employer. That’s the beginning of a fraught relationship; many of the employers see themselves without a choice, ‘making do’ with whomever they receive. The higher the dissatisfaction with the employee (maid or nanny), the more stringent the controls over their mobility and access to communication. They don’t see this as a violation of rights.

The pilot advocacy project intends to understand the concerns of employers and the problems they face in recruitment, in the belief that a smoother employer-employee relationship would mean greater trust and reduced isolation for domestic workers. Further, this critical input from employers would also help countries of origin to reconsider their training, orientation and recruitment systems. This is not a substitute for reforms to kafala, recruitment processes, or labor laws – but it is an important intermediary step.

Those who have had unpleasant experiences in recruiting live-in help often look for ‘freelance’ agents. They know of the warnings issued, but believe the risk is greater for the employee than for themselves. People like Vijaya are a safer bet – they have their papers in order and if the kafeel is cooperative, then no questions will be raised about their moonlighting.

*Not her real name. A few non-critical details were changed to protect identity of interlocutor.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East