By obstructing the ability for migrants to change employers without the permission of their original sponsor (or by imposing high transfer fees), the system denies migrants their right to employment mobility. Migrant workers are consequently forced to endure terms that may differ from their original contract, including underpayment, excessive working hours, or other abusive conditions. Migrants that escape such conditions are considered illegal – they are not entitled to any back pay, and can be fined, indefinitely detained and deported. Migrants who cannot afford to pay for their ticket home can be stranded in GCC states for years.
The high costs of recruitment associated with sponsorship instills in employers a sense of ownership; employers do not want to lose their “investment” in workers, so may confiscate passports and travel documents to prevent workers from leaving. It also justifies the dehumanization of workers as commodities rather than real workers with labor rights.
The structural dependence entrenched in the sponsorship system is frequently condemned as a conduit of modern day slavery. Be ceding regulation of migrant employment and residency to citizens and recruitment agencies, the system begets a number of legal and human rights abuses including:
Exploitative Recruitment Costs – Though sponsors are required to pay for all or most recruitment related costs, including visas and medical testing, the paucity in regulation of recruitment means migrants are often illegal charged placement fees or other extortive costs.
Debt bondage – The large debts migrant incur because of unscrupulous recruitment practices induce migrants to complete their employment contracts. Coupled with the obstacles to changing employment, this means migrants can be forced to remain in exploitative working conditions.
Illegal visa trading – GCC citizens may also sell their designated quotas to sponsor migrant workers to other citizens, expatriates, or companies. Migrants can be conned into putting up costs for an illegal visa, only to enter the country and realize that no company or no job exists. These migrants may then be stranded or face penalties.
Pushing migrants into irregular status – Sponsors’ all-consuming control over employees, the lack of employment mobility, and the obstacles to seeking employment redress are all factors in the GCC’s growing irregular migrant population. Because migrants have few accessible legal means to leave abusive or otherwise undesirable conditions, they are often forced to escape or to “abscond.” The high costs of recruitment also encourages migrants to enter GCC states undocumented.
Several states including Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have announced plans to abolish the system, but reforms so far have not yet challenged the unequal power balance between employers and migrants. For example, though Bahrain implemented measures to improve employment mobility, substantial financial and administrative obstacles to actually transferring sponsorship still exist, and domestic workers were entirely excluded from the reforms.
The abolition of the sponsorship system would benefit migrants, employers, as well as sending and origin countries; employers would be relinquished of many legal and administrative responsibilities to workers and enjoy a more flexible pool of labor; the number of irregular migrants would be reduced, benefitting the state from a security perspective as well as allowing comprehensive management of labor markets; migrant workers would enjoy greater agency, better working conditions and improved labor rights.