Millions of workers around the world traverse state borders, seeking employment in foreign countries to provide for themselves or put bread on the table for their families and dependants at home. According to the migrant rights advocacy organisation, Migrant-Rights.org, there are an estimated 25 million migrants working and living in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries alone, making up a staggering 70% of the workforce. Many of these migrants are domestic workers, working behind closed doors of private households under the notorious kafala system.
The kafala system, derived from an old feudal concept based on principles of hospitality, emerged in the 1950s to manage an influx of temporary labour into the region during times of economic growth. It is a sponsorship system under which migrant workers’ visas and legal residence is tied to the employer (known as the sponsor or kafeel) until the end of the work contract. This system is still active countries in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and also in the Arab states of Jordan and Lebanon, with an estimated 23 million migrants working under the system. Most of the migrant workers originate from a poor background.
Employers have excessive control over their employees under the kafala system as they can dictate the terms and conditions of work such as working hours and accommodation. They are also legally permitted to terminate the contracts as they please and have a responsibility to report to the authorities if the worker leaves the workplace. The employed migrant workers, on the other hand, cannot terminate their contract agreements and their legal status is immediately revoked if they leave the workplace without their employers’approval. Although prohibited, it is common practice for employers to keep their employees’ passports. Employees who escape their workplace become at risk of detention and deportation. In addition to that, the worker may not enter or leave the country and change places of work without written permission from the sponsor.
The kafala system has come under widespread criticism from human rights campaigners for promoting a power imbalance between the employer and the worker. Employees are denied their basic right to freedom of movement and are forced to depend on their employers for their residency and livelihood. This sponsorship system strips working individuals of their freedom and opens the door to largescale maltreatment of the workers. Many individuals find themselves working in dire conditions and are physically, mentally, sexually or abused behind closed doors. Some workers face dehumanising treatment and cannot leave until the end of the contract. Because of the unfavourable laws and regulations, many migrants who find themselves being exploited or abused have two choices—endure poor, unsafe or abusive working conditions such as nonpayment, underpayment and excessive working hours or escape and become an illegal immigrant. Some who escape even get stranded for years before going home due to a lack of finances.
Lebanon’s former Labour Minister, Camille Abousleiman, compared the kafala system to modern-day slavery. There are about 250 000 domestic workers employed under the system in the country. Most domestic workers originate from Africa and Southeast Asian countries such as Ethiopia, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Several reports of atrocious abuses against vulnerable workers have received attention in the media, sparking public outrage. In 2017, The New Humanitarian revealed that Lebanon’s intelligence agency reported an estimated two deaths of migrant domestic workers each week.
The prevalent abuse of domestic workers under the kafala system has generated great concern. In March this year, a 23-year-old Ghanaian domestic worker was found dead near her employers’ home in Bierut, Lebanon. Hours prior to her death, she had sent sending messages to an activist group that specialises in helping migrants workers suffering from abuse by their employers under kafala workers. In May, a Filipina domestic worker committed suicide at a shelter run by her embassy in Beirut. She had been laid off by her employees who faced financial constraints as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Governments are increasingly becoming wary of the widespread maltreatment of workers abroad. In 2014, Kenya banned domestic workers from travelling to Saudi Arabia for work. This year, recruitment agencies are now permitted to recruit workers under new guidelines. In 2015, Indonesia banned its citizens from travelling to 21 countries in the Gulf and the Middle East such as Qatar, the UAE and Suadi Arabia. This move came after a diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia when two female domestic workers suspected of murder were executed in Medina on the counts of murder. A year later, the Ugandan government banned women from travelling to Saudi Arabia for domestic work following reports of abuses and poor working conditions.
This year the Philippines banned domestic workers from migrating to Kuwait after a 26-year-old Filipina domestic worker was found dead at her employers’ home in December 2019. She had suffered multiple injuries and was sexually abused before her death. Her employees have now been charged with murder. This is not the first time that the Philippines has imposed a ban on the travel of migrant workers to the country. The government imposed a similar ban in 2018 after another Filipina domestic worker was found dead inside a freezer in an abandoned house. Both bans were lifted a few months later. Unfortunately, many determined individuals still travel abroad to work as domestic workers under the ban. This is because there is a demand for cheap labour in the destination countries and high poverty levels in the workers’ countries of origin force individuals to take risks in order to earn a living.
Ideas of reform of the kafala system in the GCC countries and the Middle East countries are starting to materialise in some countries, albeit at a rather slow pace. In 2018, Qatar's Council of Ministers adopted legislation to permit migrant workers to change jobs freely. Workers are no longer required to provide a No Objection Certificate from their employers to change jobs. In October 2019, Qatar announced that it would abolish the kafala labour system by January 2020. This move came thanks to a global outcry about the poor the working conditions and exploitation that labourers faced while building the stadiums in preparation for the World Cup 2022. The world has yet to see this commitment fulfilled. In Lebanon, Minister of Labour Lamia Yammine expressed the Ministry’s goal to amend labour laws to enforce fair practices for domestic workers. She Tweeted that the Ministry was working to reform the kafala system.
Unfortunately, this slow pace of change and implementation is not enough as words need to materialise into meaningful action. It is crucial to enforce meaningful and impactful measures to protect vulnerable workers. Human lives are valuable and no individual must suffer such horrendous conditions while trying to put bread on the table for themselves or their loved ones at home.
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