Thursday, March 06, 2014

the kafala system

guardian |  A foreign worker can only come in to the Arab Gulf states through a kafeel (sponsor). However, the essence of the kafala system is the relationship binding employee to the employer, which has often been criticised as "slave-like".

The kafala directly contradicts the labour law. The raison d'ĂȘtre of the law is to bring about a balance, in terms of rights and obligations, between the employer and the employee, but the kafala puts far too much power in the hands of the employer/sponsor. The employer can dictate the recruitment process and working conditions. The paradox is that the kafala is not a law but a tradition that seems to have precedence over the labour law. This is at the root of abuses of workers' rights.

The sponsorship system has become a lucrative business. In its early incarnation in the 1930s, it was in the best tradition of Arab hospitality, but now unscrupulous kafeels exploit the system.

The main issue is that kafala restricts labour mobility. In fact, one could argue that it prohibits any mobility on part of the worker unless approved by the kafeel. If the kafeels are unwilling to let them go, workers cannot leave them for better employment. In fact, workers can even be victims of blackmail by kafeels: if they protest or question their terms of employment, kafeels can have them deported. Being in a precarious situation forces them to accept whatever terms and conditions are given to them.

The kafeel can also shift the financial burden on to the worker. The law says the kafeel is expected to pay for medical insurance and fees for employment and residence permits and the like. Workers, on the other hand, are not supposed to bear any of these expenses. However, kafeels and intermediaries such as recruitment agencies often charge such fees to foreign workers. Indemnities for delays in registration are also often billed to workers. Similarly, some kafeels partially withhold final payments to foreign workers to recover some of the recruitment costs. Also, many kafeels exploit the workers by only leasing their sponsorship against payments. Although kafeels behaving in this way remain a minority, their victims are in the tens of thousands.

The retention of passports and identity documents has, in many instances, led to forced labour situations. Under such conditions migrants can be forced to work in arduous conditions for longer hours than envisaged by the law, without overtime payments. They are often deprived of weekly rests, annual leaves or home leave. Many have even complained of harassment.


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