The Kafala (sponsorship) system is rooted in racism, exploitation and xenophobia. It is time for an overthrow of the Middle East’s slave labour laws and for the installation of fairer, safer and more equitable working terms and practices for international migrant workers.
Kafala is a popular labour system used in several countries across the Middle East; inherently exploitative and vastly outdated, the system ties legal residency with employment. This means that the worker is excluded from legal protection and social security, the worker cannot terminate a contract or negotiate terms as all changes are at the mercy of the employer.
These conditions provide a fertile ground for exploitation; workers are often subject to extreme working conditions which include draconian restrictions on freedom of movement, insufficient accommodation, verbal, physical and psychological abuse and the threat of detention and deportation. No kafala country has substantive policies protecting international workers employed under this system and none have legislation to criminalise abusers of this system.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed insecurities and failures of governments and institutions across the world but more importantly it has revealed huge wealth disparities and social inequality between the ruling classes and the working classes. Nowhere is this gaping inequality illustrated more clearly than in the countries where the kafala system operates.
Lebanon, a country on the edge of economic collapse and where over half the population lives below the poverty line, has come under scrutiny for its treatment of international domestic workers. The socioeconomic crisis is threatening the dissolution of the already shrinking middle classes. These classes, unable to pay the wages of foreign domestic workers, have absolved themselves of the responsibility of employers and have abandoned their workers on the steps of their respective consulates. These workers – primarily African women – are left with no income, no shelter and no means to return to their home countries. Covid-19 has made air travel, an already expensive commodity, almost infeasible as the wages of these women are usually partly paid, postponed or simply withheld.
This attitude is not unique to Lebanon, the perception that migrants are expendable and replaceable is unfortunately widespread across the region. Such a view is steeped in racism and xenophobia, a belief that the workers that come to work deserve less than their rights to be free from degrading and inhumane treatment. In Kuwait, April 2020, one of the country’s most famous public figures, actress, Hayat Al-Fahad called for the government to expel expatriate workers to the desert to free up hospital beds for citizens. To make matters worse and to show the extent of racism in the Arabian Gulf, Emirati poet and influencer Tariq Al Mehyas defended the comments by claiming that the actress was only referring to Asian workers … not Arabs.
Racist views do not simply disappear on their own, kafala upholds the idea of the absolute supremacy of the employer and the limited bargaining power of the employee. Kafala allows for racism to flourish by enabling masters and madams to treat their workers how they please; unchecked and unregulated with no fear of punishment or retribution.
Kafala must end. It is all but a smokescreen for the slave-like conditions, degrading treatment and entrapment in a vicious cycle exploitation.