migrants are estimated to live and work in the GCC
of the GCC's workforce is composed of migrant workers
of the GCC's total population are migrants
of private sector in workers in the UAE & Qatar are non-nationals
What’s so bad about the Kafala?
Structural Dependence on the Employer
The power of visa processing and renewal lies with the sponsor. If a sponsor fails to process or renew a workers’ visa for any reason, it is the worker who is liable.This element of the kafala not only infantilizes workers but makes them vulnerable to extortion. In Qatar and Saudi Arabia, migrant workers cannot leave the country without their sponsor’s permission.
Indeed, the dependence entrenched in the sponsorship system is frequently condemned as a conduit of modern day slavery. By ceding regulation of migrant employment and residency to citizens and recruitment agencies, the system facilitates a number of legal and human rights abuses, as workers face obstacles filing complaints and seeing them through to a fair resolution. Employers who discover that employees’ have filed a complaint about them may report workers as ‘absconded,’ or otherwise threaten workers’ legal residency. This immediately puts the worker at risk for detention and deportation.
Many migrants are left with only two choices: to endure unfair working conditions, or to escape. Those who escape 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, as well as migrants otherwise abandoned by their sponsors, can be stranded for years.
Workers excluded from the labour law, including domestic workers and agricultural workers in most Gulf countries, are only governed by the Kafala and even more vulnerable to exploitation.
Inability to easily change jobs
The Kafala system makes it difficult for migrants to change employers without the permission of their current employer/sponsor. As a result, migrant workers often have no choice but to endure poor working conditions, including underpayment, nonpayment, excessive working hours, or other unsafe and abusive conditions.
Illegal visa trading
Citizens may sell their visa 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 realise that no company or no job exists. They may then be forced to work for unscrupulous employers, 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 Gulf’s significant 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.” Upon leaving their employer, a migrant worker is immediately considered illegal and in most cases cannot correct their status. Undocumented migrants may continue working in the Gulf, but their irregular status puts them at even further risk for exploitation.
Experiences & Reforms
Qatar and Bahrain have both claimed to abolish the Kafala the system, while other Gulf countries have implemented smaller-scale reforms. Though some of these reforms represent small, but positive steps forward, they largely fail to upend the unequal balance of power between employers and migrant workers. Often, substantial financial and administrative obstacles to actually transferring sponsorship still exist. The limited reforms fail to extend to domestic workers and agricultural workers.