Kafala: a getaway to modern-day slavery

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Migrant workers in one of the camps.

By David Onjili

The Kafala System is a sponsorship system used in Persian Gulf States that requires sponsorship from a national for migrant workers to be employed and reside in the country. Its purpose is to monitor and control migrant laborers who are mainly employed in the construction sector or as domestic workers. Most of these migrant workers hail from Asian countries like Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. In these countries, the labour is cheap and plenty and workers are thus subject to exploitation by their employers. Kenya too exports such laborers and is not exempt from this exploitation as has been witnessed in local news time and again.

Simply put, the ‘sponsor’ grants the worker sponsorship with a work visa and country entry to enable them secure work, and are thus responsible for their stay and well-being. Since most of these to be laborers cannot afford visas and work permits, they rely on sponsors to act as guarantors to acquire these documents. Other laborers have been known to sell land in a bid to travel and secure ‘better paying’ jobs that will enable them provide better life for their families at home through remittance. This thus has the laborers at the mercy of their sponsors who use this as a means to exploit and subjugate them.   

The laborers work in oppressive heat, for long hours and very low wages; they are crammed into residential camps where up to 16 individuals can share a room. Human Rights Watch has described Kafala as “a form of servitude.” Under this system, a migrant worker’s immigration status is legally bound to an individual employer or sponsor often referred to as a ‘kafeel’ during the contracted period. The migrant worker thus is denied the freedom to transfer employment or leave the country for any reason without the consent of the Kafeel. In short, they are enslaved.

Kafala can be traced to the 1950s, a has continued to ravage the world and is reminiscent to slave trade.

Both investigative journalists and human rights groups have indicated that these migrant workers, mainly from Nepal and Pakistan, are not just victims of human trafficking but also human rights abuses. Amnesty International indicates that some 5000 migrant labourers in Qatar’s continuing construction boom are charged recruitment fees in their home countries by agents promising high wages. This promise is reneged upon when they arrive and their passports confiscated, with some even losing their wages to their employers, who bar them from leaving the country and end up working as slaves. 

A UN Global Report on Persons Trafficking indicated that 85 percent of trafficked persons from South Asia and 41 percent from East Asia and the pacific region were trafficked for the purposes of forced labour.

“I felt like I was a prostitute,” a young Kenyan woman who was lucky to return home after undergoing servitude in Saudi Arabia, told media recently. Her employer had given her a choice to either have sex with him or be killed. She opted for the former according to her interview with Reuters. Another Kenyan in Lebanon working as a maid had bleach poured over her head as punishment for cleaning the bathroom too slowly.

In 2013, Kenya banned its citizens from seeking domestic work in the Middle East while revoking licenses of close to 1000 recruitment agencies. This was a measure that neighbours Uganda and Ethiopia have also effected to protect its citizens. While the focus is primarily on domestic workers, a number of Kenyans still leave for countries in the Gulf to seek work –  unemployment in the country remains high and thus many citizens still seek ways to go out of the country with the promise of a good jobs.

“We are fearful as a country, if we speak too much about rights and good treatment of migrant workers, we would lose the labour market,” Dr Chowdhury Abar, a professor at University of Dhaka in Bangladesh noted in a documentary by Tifo Football. In 2017, Kenya lifted the ban it had imposed and allowed its citizens to seek employment in Saudi Arabia.

In a meeting by labour officials in Riyadh, the two nations agreed to reopen recruitment and that agencies would now have a database on the employers and employee details. 

Doha, Qatar – April 26, 2016. The bedroom shared by six men in a camp situated in Shahaniya, 40 km from Doha. According to Qatar Foundation maximum four beds are allowed in one bedroom.

But has anything changed for the better? 

Cases of exploitation of migrant workers continue in these Gulf nations, even as the Kenyan government acknowledges that it has a labour attaché at their mission in Riyadh to handle labour related issues.

“The abuse of migrant workers is a stain on the conscience of world football. For players and fans, a world cup stadium is a place of dreams,” says Salil Shetty, Amnesty International Secretary General. While these remarks are specifically towards Qatar with their hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, many other Gulf states practice Kafala.

An economic boycott by UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia on Qatar prompted the country to take steps to ‘stop’ this practice. Qatar promised to abolish Kafala, introduce a workers charter which proposed minimum wages for employees and which provided for workers to ask for an exit visa from their employers. 

Interestingly, Kafala is not just practiced in one nation, and despite extensive promises, the practice remains existent in the Gulf nations. Perhaps individual nations are the only ones that can protect their citizens from this modern day slavery. ( 

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