Life under Kafala: A Migrant Worker’s Perspective

Low-income migrant workers often face limited, difficult choices in the Gulf.
What would you do in their place?

This will take approximately 5 minutes of your time.

You learned about job opportunities in the Gulf through someone you know in your city.

The process is long and expensive, but you’ve seen how your friends have supported their families and returned home to pursue their dreams. You’ve paid 2800 USD in recruitment fees to secure your job, which you will have to pay back in full before you can start saving.

You plan to use your salary to build a home, take care of aging parents, send your kids to school, and hopefully save enough to start your own business back home.

A friendly neighborhood recruiter promised you a huge salary, but first you must pay an initial fee.

Then you have to pay a few hundred dollars for all the paperwork. You take a loan from the agent, and mortgage the land you plan to build your house on. With all you’ve invested, you’re now even more desperate for work.

There’s no turning back. You sign a contract, even though people warn you you might not receive what’s promised.

You surrender your passport to the agent and you will not receive it till you take off from your home.

You will hold the passport for the short duration of the journey. Once you’ve met your employer, your employer tells you they’re taking your passport for "safekeeping." You hear from others that it’s really because they’re afraid you’ll run away. Losing possession of your identity documents feels unsafe, but you can’t protest.

You meet with your agent at the airport, along with a group of new colleagues. You are given a cap with the agency’s name on it.

You try making friends. Once you land in the new city, to work, you wait a few hours to clear your visa papers. You are finally taken to your new accommodation. There are 4 bunk beds in the small room. There are four toilets and four bathrooms for the nearly 200 people in the camp. There is a kitchen with 2 stoves and 1 fridge. You will take turns to use this.

A relative passes and you need to return for the funeral.

But your employer refuses to give you permission to leave, and because they have your passport, you can’t even choose to lose your job and leave.

Passport confiscation is technically illegal.

Filing a formal legal complaint against your employer is not easy, but you manage to find the means and the time to file an official complaint. But, you get someone with a bad day. They tell you to come back later.

You manage to file a complaint. But your employer is angry you lodged a complaint against him and registers you as a ‘runaway’ or absconder.

Undocumented - You aren’t able to challenge their allegation, and your residency is now illegal. Since you’ve violated your contract in the law’s eyes, you aren’t owed anything.

You’re detained indefinitely, and you will be deported.

You can only wait for your embassy to process your identity documents and pay for your ticket home. This could take months or even years.

You manage to take your complaint to court, but the hearing keeps being adjourned.

You travel 15-20 kms from your camp to the court. You don't have the money to sustain this back and forth, let alone the money for a lawyer or translator. You must depend on the court appointed person, who is most often not interested in your problem.

Your employer repeatedly fails to show up to trial.

The court rules in your favor, but can’t get your employer to return your passport.

Your only option is to go to your embassy.

Your embassy encourages you to negotiate with your employer, as filing an official complaint is a long, expensive, and often unfruitful process. They will not provide legal support in employer-employee disputes.

Talking to your employer doesn’t help. They’re angry that you reported a problem to your embassy, and report you as a ‘run away’ or absconder.

You’re now considered “illegal”, and you can be detained indefinitely before you are deported. You survive through donations from people in your community, until your embassy is able to repatriate you. This could take years.

The embassy will try to negotiate with your employer to get your passport back - but they have no power to coerce them. If they can’t get your passport back, they’ll have to process new identity documents for you, which is a lengthy process.

You cannot work for another employer in the meantime, and you have no money.

You survive through donations from people in your community, until your embassy is able to repatriate you. This could take years.

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to get into the Gulf than it is to get out.

There’s no easy way out of your situation. You’ll have to wait indefinitely to be repatriated and you’ve got no chance at recouping your wages. You might be waiting in a detention center for your embassy to intervene, or you might try working irregularly until you can afford to pay off your recruitment debts, your expired visa fees, and your flight ticket home.

Continue

Getting out of an exploitative situation isn’t easy for migrant workers. The Kafala system gives employer disproportionate power over migrant workers, leaving a migrant’s experiences up to the chance of working for a good kafeel or employer. Dishonest recruitment practices and weak access to justice compounds workers’ vulnerability to exploitation. Labour and migration laws must be reformed and meaningfully enforced to ensure safety and fairness for all residents.

What can you do?

The kafala system puts a lot of control in employer’s hands, so the individual actions of an employer make a big difference in worker’s lives.

Report any abuses you witness to authorities. Employers who violate local laws often aren’t held accountable because employees don’t have the means, time, or knowledge to file a complaint and see it through.

Share this simulation and our site’s resources with friends and family, especially those who run a local business or employ a domestic worker.

The work is a shock

Nowhere close to what your recruiter and your contract described. You were promised an 8 hour working day, making 300USD a month. Instead, you’re working 12 hour days – not including transit time to work – you’re being paid half as much, and sometimes not at all.

Leaving the country, even if it were easy, is not an option because you haven’t even made a dent in your recruitment debts.

Filing a formal legal complaint against your employer is not easy, but you manage to find the means and the time to file an official complaint.

But, you get someone with a bad day. They tell you to come back later.

You manage to file an official complaint. But, you get someone with a bad day. They tell you to come back later.

You manage to file a complaint. But your employer is angry you lodged a complaint against him, and registers you as a ‘runaway’ or absconder.

You aren’t able to challenge their allegation, and your residency is now illegal. Since you’ve violated your contract in the law’s eyes, you aren’t owed anything.

You’re detained indefinitely, and you will be deported.

You can only wait for your embassy to process your identity documents and pay for your ticket home. This could take months, or even years.

You manage to take your complaint to court, but the hearing keeps being adjourned.

You travel 15-20 kms from your camp to the court. You don't have the money to sustain this back and forth, let alone the money for a lawyer or translator. You must depend on the court appointed person, who is most often not interested in your problem.

Your employer repeatedly fails to show up to trial, delaying litigation and raising your costs.

The court rules in your favor, ordering your employer to pay your due wages, as well as penalties for breaking the law.

But months later, your employer has still not paid your wages. Authorities make no effort to enforce the court ruling. You’re now more desperate than ever - you have mouths to feed back home, and debts to pay. Leaving the country, even if it was possible, is not a realistic option.

Your only choice to cut your losses - but neither finding new employment nor exiting the country is an easy feat.

Your embassy encourages you to negotiate with your employer, as filing an official complaint is long, expensive, and often unfruitful process. They will not provide legal support in employer-employee disputes.

Talking to your employer doesn’t help. They’re angry that you reported a problem to your embassy, and report you as a ‘run away’ or absconder.

You’re now considered “illegal”, and you can be detained indefinitely before you are deported. You survive through donations from people in your community, until your embassy is able to repatriate you. This could take years.

The embassy will try to negotiate with your employer - but not to get your wages. The embassy will only try to help you retrieve your confiscated passport, and help you get home.

You cannot work for another employer in the meantime, and you have no money.

You survive through donations from people in your community, until your embassy is able to repatriate you. This could take years.

You need your employer’s permission to transfer sponsorship.

In Bahrain, you can change your job without our employers permission after completing one year with them.

In the UAE, you can change your job after six months, but you might face a six-month employment ban if you’re not a high skilled, high income worker. Read more here. But in both countries, there remain obstacles to achieving rights proscribed in the law.

In Saudi, you may be able to transfer sponsorship if your employer is not compliant with Saudization requirements. Read more here. But in each country, there remain obstacles to achieving the employment mobilities rights proscribed in the law.

Your employer is unlikely to agree to transfer sponsorship, but if he does, he will force you to a sign a document state that he does not owe you any wages. He may also charge you for the transaction.

Your employer refuses to transfer your visa. Your only hope for better work is to run away, and work undocumented for another employer.

But now you’re tied to the benevolence of your new employer, who can at any time report you as an absconded worker. You’re always watching your back, because if authorities ask for your papers, you will be jailed indefinitely and deported. You won’t have the opportunity to defend yourself, and there is no chance of recuperating your lost wages.

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to get into the Gulf than it is to get out.

There’s no easy way out of your situation. You’ll have to wait indefinitely to be repatriated and you’ve got no chance at recouping your wages. You might be waiting in a detention center for your embassy to intervene, or you might try working irregularly until you can afford to pay off your recruitment debts, your expired visa fees, and your flight ticket home.

Continue

Getting out of an exploitative situation isn’t easy for migrant workers. The Kafala system gives employer disproportionate power over migrant workers, leaving a migrant’s experiences up to the chance of working for a good kafeel or employer. Dishonest recruitment practices and weak access to justice compounds workers’ vulnerability to exploitation. Labour and migration laws must be reformed and meaningfully enforced to ensure safety and fairness for all residents.

What can you do?

The kafala system puts a lot of control in employer’s hands, so the individual actions of an employer make a big difference in worker’s lives.

Report any abuses you witness to authorities. Employers who violate local laws often aren’t held accountable because employees don’t have the means, time, or knowledge to file a complaint and see it through.

Share this simulation and our site’s resources with friends and family, especially those who run a local business or employ a domestic worker.

Your employer’s company stops work on your project and you’re no longer being paid

Your employer promises work will resume - but it’s now been months. Your employer has also stopped providing food or maintenance to your labour camp.

Filing a formal legal complaint against your employer is not easy, but you manage to find the means and the time to file an official complaint.

But, you get someone with a bad day. They tell you to come back later.

You manage to file an official complaint. But, you get someone with a bad day. They tell you to come back later.

You manage to file a complaint. But your employer is angry you lodged a complaint against him, and registers you as a ‘runaway’ or absconder.

You aren’t able to challenge their allegation, and your residency is now illegal. Since you’ve violated your contract in the law’s eyes, you aren’t owed anything.

You’re detained indefinitely, and you will be deported.

You can only wait for your embassy to process your identity documents and pay for your ticket home. This could take months, or even years.

You appeal to your embassy to intervene – but you can’t know how long it will take for them to get the funds to handle your case, and they can’t force the employer to action anyway.

Your employer is angry that you got your embassy involved, and report you as a run away.

Your residency is now illegal and you’re in jail. If your family can’t send money for a flight, you’ll join a long queue of workers waiting for your embassy to send them home. You’ll be deported without your due wages.

The embassy will try to negotiate with your employer - but not to get your wages. The embassy will only try to help you retrieve your confiscated passport, and help you get home.

You cannot work for another employer in the meantime, and you have no money.You survive through donations from people in your community, until your embassy is able to repatriate you. This could take years.

You need your employer’s permission to transfer sponsorship.

In Bahrain, you can change your job without our employers permission after completing one year with them.

In the UAE, you can change your job after six months, but you might face a six-month employment ban if you’re not a high skilled, high income worker. Read more here. But in both countries, there remain obstacles to achieving rights proscribed in the law.

Your employer is unlikely to agree to transfer sponsorship, but if he does, he will force you to a sign a document stating that he does not owe you any wages. He may also charge you for the transaction.

You want to go home.

But your contract isn’t over - though your employer has breached it - and you have to return on your own dime. Especially as you haven’t been paid your due wages, you can’t afford to buy a ticket home.

Even if you’ve managed to find funds for a ticket, you can’t leave without an exit visa from your employer.

Exit visas are only required in Saudi and Qatar. Qatar recently reformed its exit visa rules, but obstacles to exit still exist. Read more here.

In Saudi, you may be able to transfer sponsorship if your employer is not compliant with Saudization requirements. Read more here. But in each country, there remain obstacles to achieving the employment mobilities rights proscribed in the law.

Unless the labour ministry intervenes after you lodge a formal complaint - again, a length process - they can’t be compelled to give you one.

Your employer refuses to transfer your visa. Your only hope to find work is to run away, and work undocumented for another employer.

But now you’re tied to the benevolence of your new employer, who can at any time report you as an absconded worker. You’re always watching your back, because if authorities ask for your papers, you will be jailed indefinitely and deported. You won’t have the opportunity to defend yourself, and there is no chance of recuperating your lost wages.

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to get into the Gulf than it is to get out.

There’s no easy way out of your situation. You’ll have to wait indefinitely to be repatriated and you’ve got no chance at recouping your wages. You might be waiting in a detention center for your embassy to intervene, or you might try working irregularly until you can afford to pay off your recruitment debts, your expired visa fees, and your flight ticket home.

Continue

Getting out of an exploitative situation isn’t easy for migrant workers. The Kafala system gives employer disproportionate power over migrant workers, leaving a migrant’s experiences up to the chance of working for a good kafeel or employer. Dishonest recruitment practices and weak access to justice compounds workers’ vulnerability to exploitation. Labour and migration laws must be reformed and meaningfully enforced to ensure safety and fairness for all residents.

What can you do?

The kafala system puts a lot of control in employer’s hands, so the individual actions of an employer make a big difference in worker’s lives.

Report any abuses you witness to authorities. Employers who violate local laws often aren’t held accountable because employees don’t have the means, time, or knowledge to file a complaint and see it through.

Share this simulation and our site’s resources with friends and family, especially those who run a local business or employ a domestic worker.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East