The promise of work and the ability to provide for their families back home brings millions of migrant workers from Africa and other parts of Asia to the Middle East under a system designed to connect workers with jobs. What most are not told before packing their bags is that in common destination countries including Jordan, Lebanon, and most of the Arab Gulf, the labor policies are extremely predatory to non-citizens.
The overall system, known as kafala, allows employers to sponsor foreign laborers. At face value, the system doesn’t seem bad and sounds like it could be a win/win. Sponsors cover travel and living expenses, and workers are given visas which allow them to work and live in the new country. But beneath the surface, kafala gives employers almost complete control over workers and leaves them with few protections. At the root of this issue is that kafala gives private citizens and companies, instead of the state, control over migrants’ legal statuses. As a result, sponsors control most aspects of their workers’ lives. This includes where they work, if and how they receive their pay and benefits, and even where they can go by holding necessary travel documents. To make matters worse, workers have almost no way of fighting workplace abuses as they are not covered by these countries’ labor protections.
Many use the unequal power balance to their benefit, through cruel and exploitative practices. Sponsors often seek out laborers in host countries through private recruitment agencies, which trap migrants into debt bondage by charging excessive recruitment fees that cannot be paid back with the low wages many migrant workers receive. Recruitment agencies and sponsors often take advantage of desperate economic situations in host countries. They deceive workers about the reality of work, and have them sign contracts in their non-native languages. This also forces workers into jobs and work conditions that they otherwise would not have agreed to. Once migrants have signed contracts and relocated, they must either accept the work or face deportation.
Given the continued place of racism and xenophobia in the region and around the world, most migrant workers from Africa and South Asia are relegated to low-income jobs despite their educational backgrounds or professional skillsets. Unfavorable attitudes towards foreigners is commonplace, even impacting regionally-displaced refugees such as Syrians and Palestinians. In fact, a big reason for the entrance of kafala and its prevalence across the region is its ability to provide a large supply of labor to meet booming economic demands while “preserving” a national identity for citizens of these countries.
Domestic workers, the majority of which are women, face some of the most alarming abuses. Across the countries where kafala is in place, domestic workers frequently report instances of employers withholding pay, failing to provide proper living conditions, forcing them to work extremely long hours without breaks, and verbally, physically, and sexually assaulting them. One woman from Ethiopia, Meserat Hailu, traveled to Beirut, Lebanon in her late 20s for employment as a domestic worker. Instead of receiving the salary she was promised, she was locked inside her sponsor’s house for over 8 years, forced to work 15-hour days, and subjected to cruel psychological, physical, and verbal abuse. Even though these abuses are technically illegal, workers risk deportation, imprisonment, and further abuse from their employers if they try to report or escape their situations. Meserat was eventually able to escape with assistance from Legal Action Worldwide, who are now helping her fight this landmark criminal case in a Lebanese court. But her situation is not unique, and similar situations are faced by the 250,000 to 300,000 domestic workers in Lebanon alone. Speaking on Al-Jazeera, Aya Mazjoub of Human Rights Watch explained that these instances of abuse aren’t just “a few bad apples”, but instead shed light on the fact that the kafala system is extremely abusive in of itself.
Another hotbed of abuse under the kafala system is construction work. A recent example is the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Now less than 4 months away, the construction process has exposed many abuses against hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who have been building the sports venue over the last 12 years. Migrant construction workers face wage theft, are forced to work backbreaking 12-hour days for months and even years on end without a single break day. They are also subjected to dangerous work conditions leaving them susceptible to serious injuries and death with little to no recourse. Speaking to Amnesty International, Godfrey, a Ugandan migrant worker, explained that he and his colleagues were forced to work 7 days a week every week of the year. If they missed work, multiple days’ wages would be deducted. Another worker named Daniel explained he had not been paid in over 7 months, leaving his family living in poverty and extremely vulnerable. Thousands of workers building the stadium have died over the years, without any investigation or compensation to families from the Qatari government. After coming under severe pressure from human rights groups, Qatar was praised for supposed reforms to the system, but workers on the ground claim that these changes are false promises that only exist on paper.
Over the last two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has made matters even worse for workers under the kafala system across the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of workers live in overcrowded quarters and lack access to healthcare, with no other housing options due to the constraints of kafala. Further to this, pandemic imposed regulations, like travel restrictions, carry the potential of further abuse for migrant workers. With people confined to homes, domestic workers’ employers have an easier time imposing longer work hours and ramping up abuses undetected. In Lebanon, which is currently facing a severe socio-economic crisis, the weight of the issue falls primarily on the most vulnerable populations, like migrant workers. To make up for recession costs or losses, many employers have delayed or cut wages for their employees, who have few to no options for redress.
The kafala system has been under scrutiny for quite some time, leading some governments to try and implement reforms. For example, as previously mentioned, Qatar implemented labor reforms in 2020 allowing migrant workers to change jobs without their employer’s consent and set a higher minimum wage standard. Despite these measures, which appear helpful on paper, there is still a very strong power imbalance that enables labor abuses. Employers still control migrants’ legal status and can confiscate their documents. Also, workers are not allowed to unionize or strike, and seeking redress when their rights are violated can be extremely difficult if not impossible.
Due to kafala’s embedded history and its significant economic benefit to employers and national economies, many rich and powerful members of society are fighting hard to protect the system. Completely shutting off the channel to migrant labor will not solve the problem as jobs are still desperately needed. This solution is only likely to increase the risk of human trafficking and exploitation as people seeking work will be forced to go through smugglers and intermediaries. Overall, there is much more work that needs to be done to dismantle this exploitative system across the countries where it is in place and find a fair way to encourage migrant labor. We need to call the current state of the kafala system what it is: an issue of modern slavery, and continue fighting to bring attention to the current system and push for real reforms that empower workers and can end worker exploitation.
To read more about human trafficking and modern slavery in the Middle East region, download and read the Human Trafficking Search Middle East Research Guide.
Luke Fanous is a Research Fellow for Human Trafficking Search. He holds an M.A. in Political Science from Columbia University and a B.A. in Political Science, Minor in Business from the University of Arkansas. Luke previously worked as a Research Assistant on the Human Trafficking Study at the University of Arkansas and as an intern with the Institute for Palestine Studies.