Tricked and Trapped by the Kafala System

Disclaimer: With increasing reports in the Arabian Gulf, the situation of migrant workers is critical considering the recent COVID-19 global health crisis.

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries host millions of migrant workers thanks to a booming oil-based economy, promising higher standards of living to expats compared to their home country. 88% of the Qatari population are foreign workers, and Saudi Arabia houses around 11 million from more than 100 countries. Migrants are the economic backbone of the Gulf States, and it is thanks to them that the Arabian Gulf has a significant concentration of global wealth. Underlying the economic prosperity of the Gulf, however, is a story of millions’ freedoms trapped by their employers and the government.

The British colonization of the Arabian Gulf had a considerable effect on today’s state of affairs, starting with the first wave of Southeast Asian workers traveling to the Gulf through the networks set up by the British Empire. However, it was not until the discovery of oil that there was a sudden surge of foreign labor. From 1973-1982, the population of migrant workers increased from 800,000 to 4.4 million. The Gulf’s economic success and development projects demanded migrant labor due to a shortage of nationals. Although the number of workers proliferated, the Gulf states had no incentive to naturalize these populations, which is key to understanding the modern dilemma. The social and cultural intricacies of the Gulf states are based upon strict tribal organization and systems of kinship. This social structure allows for the government to practice rentierism. Gulf citizens do not pay taxes, instead the government uses its massive oil revenue to distribute subsidies to its citizens. In doing so, there is an implicit social contract between the citizens and their leaders. Migrant workers threaten to break apart this contract and trust, especially since they are not a part of the tribal and ethnic structure of the region. Consequently, the GCC countries created a system to ensure efficiency from its labor workforce without compromising on its authority and legitimacy.

In the GCC countries, the public sector employs nationals while the private sector snares the foreigners. The government wanted their foreign labor to be dispensable, able to be brought in during an economic boom and sent back whenever. The establishment of the kafala system in the 1950s first made this dynamic possible by requiring migrant workers to receive sponsorship from a national to employ them; this continues today. The sponsor can be a company or an individual citizen and has strict control over the migrant. Without permission, the worker cannot leave his/her job or travel outside of the country — or they face threats of deportation. Essentially, the unbridled power of the sponsor keeps the migrant worker’s livelihood in check, and they remain vulnerable throughout their contracted employment. 

The kafala system makes humans a disposable commodity through their exploitation in the workplace. Despite signing a contract that promises financial benefits, there are many cases in which migrant workers receive none or insufficient payment. A study conducted in 2018 at UC Berkeley found that due to “high recruitment fees, high-interest loans, and low or unpaid salaries,” migrant workers are forced into exploitative situations. 79.2% of Bangladeshi migrants work in the Gulf countries, and 34% experience “migration failure,” which occurs when they incur debts up to US$818 and are unable to leave Bangladesh. Due to misleading information, the hiring process is flawed and migrants experience failure from the very beginning of employment. The kafala system lacks transparency for the hiring process, creating more financial duress on potential migrants. In addition, kafala eliminates any legal redress for violations of migrant workers’ rights. Unless the migrant worker can afford a lawyer, they are not able to file any complaints due to potential punishment from their employer.

I had the opportunity to meet with Sakib Mahmood, one of the co-authors for the aforementioned study. He explained that although many Bangladeshi workers stated they would not return to the Gulf, an overwhelming number renewed their contracts.

“Even though their contracts are unfair, their lives are better than if they stayed back home…every worker that I interviewed stated they wanted to leave Bangladesh, not caring if they had to work in those conditions.”

Sakib Mahmood

Mahmood touches upon an important point. From a privileged Western perspective, we may wonder why migrant workers continue to re-sign contracts and move to the Gulf States only to enter a system of entrapment. However, human rights are relative. In their eyes, supporting their families back home trumps suffering through inhumane treatment. The Gulf States’ governments are fully aware of this trade-off and thus are not motivated to truly reform the kafala system. There is a continuous supply of migrant workers, and thus ongoing enslavement. 

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights acknowledges the right to freedom of movement, which the kafala system directly violates through the control of a worker’s mobility by his/her employer. Countries at the 1926 Geneva Convention signed the Slavery Convention, where Article 1 defined slavery to be “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” Kevin Bales’ 1998 book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy explains how the rapid modernization and globalization of the world economy has brought about a new form of slavery, one that emphasizes a quick turn-around in labor efficiency. He describes “contract slavery” as a form in which contracts guarantee employment, yet the worker faces enslavement through threats and lack of freedom of movement. It is time that the kafala system is recognized as such servitude.

The GCC countries continuously choose to ignore institutionalized international agreements, refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing. Worldwide attention focused on Qatar as the media revealed the mistreatment of the 2 million migrant workers leading up to the FIFA World Cup 2022. The story of Bhupendra Magar’s death in 2018 brought to light thousands of deaths covered up by the Qatari government as “accidental.” There is nothing accidental about the intentions of the kafala system, nor in the purpose it serves to take advantage of those seeking simple livelihood. Although Qatar passed a few laws in response to the global backlash, they lack legal efficacy and are merely a show for the media. Migrant workers continue to suffer the ramifications of their legal shackles. This response is not unique to Qatar, Saudi Arabia launched a detainment campaign in 2017 where 2.1 million foreigners were arrested over one year for not having valid work permits or sponsors. Hundreds of thousands were later deported as a result. In Oman, Lakshmi Senthilnathan describes the countless cases of sexual and physical abuse that she endured under her employers. A large percentage of migrant workers are women, and their experiences as workers in an inescapable domestic environment are disturbing. 

There are no institutional barriers to prevent these human rights abuses from happening. Instead the future for the GCC countries continues to play to the governments’ advantage. Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia touts his Vision 2030 plan to boost the social, cultural, and economic sectors of the nation. However, his ambitious development projects require massive amounts of resources, including foreign labor. Many of the GCC countries share similar ambitions, and their dependence on migrant workers is only increasing. The kafala system’s continuing existence only cements ongoing human rights abuses for millions of workers. How can the world stand by and tout the economic progress of these countries while ignoring the humans whose backs it was built upon? We must acknowledge as an international community that despite the abolishment of slavery, it continues to pervade global society. In the dawn of economic globalization, cheap labor has become more valuable to those who employ it. Every country is inexplicably tied to one another through this modernization, but nations choose to continue reaping the benefits without considering the consequences. Today, the topic of human rights is more nuanced than ever; however, the kafala system’s transgressions are not.