Today, the Gulf region has amongst the highest labour migration rates in the world. Legislators in the GCC countries drafted a mechanism to manage immigration, and out of this the Kafala system was born; Saudi citizens, for example, can request for a foreign worker to come and to work for them, and in return, the kafil must be responsible for the worker as guarantee for the government. The system shifts the legal burden directly to the nationals.
Under this system, an employer assumes responsibility for a hired migrant worker and must grant explicit permission before the worker can enter the country, transfer employment, or even leave the country. The system gives the employer immense control over the worker and has the seed structure for exploitation and abuse.
The immigration policy typically requires that employers sign an ‘exit visa’ for migrant workers wishing to return home. Many employers refuse to sign these exit visas, forcing workers to continue working against their will for months or years. Human Rights Watch has documented cases of physical and psychological abuse by employers, including beatings, injury and humiliation, with food deprivation being a common abuse. They interviewed women who reported rape, attempted rape, and sexual harassment, typically by male employers or their sons, and in some instances, by other foreign workers whom they had approached for assistance.
A recent video posted by a Kuwaiti social network celebrity, Sondos Alqattan, highlighted the obliviousness of nationals to the degree of injustice and suffering that they are collectively a party to. Her outrage that Filipino maids should have possession of their passports, the possibility to leave the country or to have days off from work, highlighted the dire absence of migrant worker rights. It’s not only Freudian slips that put a spotlight on the current state of affairs, almost anyone who has spoken to foreign workers or their families are well versed in the catalogue of abuses that many migrants are subjected to.
The Kafala system has been described as modern day slavery and given the extraordinary imbalance in power afforded to the kafil, its difficult to argue otherwise.
I believe it’s quite possible for a few changes in the Middle East to act as a catalyst for the development of a more meritocratic and fairer society. Closing the chapter on the Kafala system would be a start.