Economic Policy

Real Change or Broken Promises for Migrant Workers in the Kafala System

The Kafala System has been the central governance strategy that has regulated the socio-economic mobility of migrant workers in the Arabian Gulf over the oil development decades. Sophie Olver-Ellis notes that despite progress in reforming the archaic strategy, it is uncertain as to whether there is real change occurring in the regulation of migrant workers across the Arabian Gulf.


Throughout the Arabian Gulf, the restrictive Kafala system binds more than 23 million migrant workers. Rooted in the region’s Bedouin principle surrounding hospitality, the guardian who is also referred to as the kafeel, was obligated to offer their guests temporary shelter, food and protection. While with the discovery of oil in the 1930s and subsequent rapid influx of migrant labour that provided the crucial skilled and unskilled manpower, the regions’ governments required a strategy that would regulate the socio-economic mobility of the transient migrant labour force. As a result, the Kafala system was formally adopted and set the mandate that employers, who are national citizens of the respective Gulf state, must sponsor the migrant workers entering the GCC states in order to gain a work permit and residency visa.  The system also served a greater socio-political purpose, whereby it helped alleviate the negative social consequences associated to a large migrant presence. As the migrant workforce are rendered temporary even if they stay in the country for decades, they are prohibited from acquiring citizenship and receiving the oil-induced socio-economic benefits, which are reserved for the national citizenry.

Indeed, the Kafala has also received increased criticism from the international community since it restricts the socio-economic mobility of the migrant resulting in the entrapment of many workers in working conditions akin to modern day slavery. At times, their wages stop and they are unable to leave because of the illegal, yet widespread, practice of the employer confiscating the migrant’s passport and identity documents, all of which exacerbate the extreme power imbalance between the kafeel and migrant worker.  Due to widespread abuse and dubious employment practices associated with the kafala, many declare that the system is incompatible with modern labour practices and should be abolished. Therefore, with the adoption of new development Visions, increasing international opposition to the sponsorship system, and calls from the regions’ governments for greater integration in the globalized political economy, it is important now more than ever before that the ruling elite address the systems put in place to regulate the migrant labour force.

Take Kuwait for example, a country in diplomatic turmoil with the Philippines over the last six months due to the reported abuse of Filipino workers at the hands of their Kuwaiti sponsors. With news that more Filipino domestic workers are committing suicide while others are dying at the hands of their kafeel, the Philippine President Roderigo Duterte responded by prohibiting the deployment of any Filipino domestic workers and assisted the repatriation of any worker who wanted to leave Kuwait. This strained the bilateral ties between the two states and as a result, the Kuwaiti government was forced to address their sponsorship system if they were to continue to have access to the Filipina labour force. In response, on May 11, 2018, Kuwait signed a labour agreement that would prohibit the kafeel from confiscating the migrant’s passport, alongside guaranteeing that the worker receives their salary in a timely manner, have a 12-hour period of rest and access to a hotline where they can report abuse. Although this is promising progress that other nations should implement, the major challenge will be in the implementation of the agreement, which will fundamentally be the responsibility of the Kuwaiti government. Thus, despite such measures being in place, the agreement lacks any substantial penalties against any rogue kafeels and the successful implementation should be treated with caution.

While looking to Qatar, human rights activists have continuously called for the international community to boycott visiting the country when they host the 2022 World Cup, because of the high number of migrant worker deaths associated with building the venues. In 2017, more than 1200 worker deaths were estimated while building the infrastructure needed to successfully host the games. With four years to go, the international community demanded that Qatar address its sponsorship of its migrant workforce. Moreover, with the Saudi-led blockade on the small GCC state entering its second year, the Qatari government had to respond if they were to maintain economic and diplomatic ties with the global community. In response, the Qatari government declared that they are preparing to host the World Cup, while honoring the rights of the migrant workforce. To do so, the government signed an agreement that would reform the human and employment based rights available to the migrant workforce, including a minimum wage, representation within joint workplace committees, and lodging their contracts with the government to prohibit changes upon their arrival by the sponsor.  With advocacy for these reforms, the Qatari government has been widely considered to be moving in the right direction in its treatment of migrant workers. If they do follow through on such commitments, it will improve the country’s human rights record alongside its geopolitical standing.

Reforms and even a proposal to abolish the sponsorship system across the Arabian Gulf has been on the agenda of the regions’ governments for decades and despite such proposals from Kuwait and Qatar being promising; the international community should treat them with caution. Although the establishment of a minimum wage and access to workplace committees or a hotline should improve work place abuse experienced by migrant workers, systems often tend to implement radical reforms slowly and on an ad hoc basis. Therefore, it is uncertain whether there is real change occurring in the regulation of migrant workers across the Arabian Gulf, or if it is the same old promises slated to be broken.

Dr Sophie Olver-Ellis is a political economist with a PhD, which focused on the transforming political economies of the Arabian Gulf, from the University of Bath. She holds over nine year’s research experience with particular expertise on the changing social, political and economic structures of the Gulf region by exploring the changing dynamics within the oil economies and how they are preparing for the post-oil era.

Photo Credit: AFP/Middle East Eye

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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