The Kefala system, the system of migrant “sponsorship”, is employed by countries in the Gulf. The system stipulates that, for the residency permits of foreign workers to be valid, a domestic citizen or domestic local company (referred to as “the kafeel”) must sponsor them. As a result, migrant workers’ legal right to work and live in a Gulf state is entirely dependent on their sponsor.

The Kefala System As Slave Labour

The Kefala system has been likened to slavery by some humanitarian groups. While many Gulf states have enacted laws entitling migrant labourers to rights not inherent to the Kefala system, the reality is that the system itself places a great deal of power into the hands of the sponsor.

One of the many problems associated with this system is that it restricts labour mobility because sponsors routinely confiscate migrant workers’ passports even when domestic labour law prohibits this. If workers were to leave the protection of their employer, they would be classified as illegal immigrants. The employer can then, under the system, solely dictate the employment recruiting process and working conditions, and workers cannot leave cruel or degrading treatment from their employer without facing time in jail. The Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights stated on the topic of Lebanese workers under the Kefala system that “migrant workers cannot simply decide they want to leave Lebanon…hundreds of [migrant workers] stay months in prison awaiting money for their ticket and their embassies’ support in providing new traveling documents.”

Amnesty International estimates that the number of migrant workers, predominantly African and South Asian, in Lebanon suffering under this system reaches over 250,000. The majority of migrant workers are women. A report on the Kefala system in Lebanon by Amnesty International also details exploitation of workers under the system, including the use of extremely long working hours and lack of rest days, severe restrictions on freedom of both communication and movement, food deprivation, psychological abuse and physical violence.

Some sponsors have shifted their bureaucratic financial burden on to their workers. When local laws stipulate the sponsor must pay for medical insurance and fees for employment and residence permits, sponsors and their intermediaries have been known to charge such fees to foreign workers. Indemnities for delays in registration and other bureaucratic charges are also often billed to migrant workers.

The sponsorship system has become lucrative over the last few decades. In its earliest incarnation in the 1930s, it acted as part of the best tradition of Arab hospitality, with sponsors welcoming migrant workers to the country and providing them with aid and good working conditions, but this system has evolved and been exploited by unscrupulous sponsors.

Some countries, such as Lebanon and Qatar, have claimed to abolish or reform the Kefala system, but the system’s most critical vulnerabilities still remain throughout the Gulf.

The Kefala System Doesn’t Simply Abuse Workers: Sometimes, It Kills, Too

The death of Filipino migrant worker Joanna Delafermis in Kuwait caused an uproar in the Philippines. An autopsy revealed that she had died due to extensive beatings from her employer. Under the Kefala system, Delafermis’ phone was confiscated by her employer, meaning she could not call for help.

Her case, while extreme, is not an isolated incident. According to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, over 240,000 Filipino workers are deployed in Kuwait for work, with all of them operating under the Kefala system. Around 165,000 of these workers are female domestic workers.

In 2018, an Ethiopian migrant worker in Lebanon named Lensa Lelisa was filmed detailing specific allegations of abuse from her employer, stating she feared she would be harmed for stating her allegations publicly. She stated that she had been beaten during her employment, and jumped from a balcony as a result, injuring herself in the progress. Ultimately, she returned to her employer and recanted, claiming she fell off the balcony and fabricated her claims because she wanted to leave Lebanon.

In 2010, Human Rights Watch published a lengthy report stating the various ways in which the Lebanese judicial system allowed abuse in the Kefala system to remain unchecked. These include a lack of provision of translators, the abuse of workers during interrogation and no rights to legal representation. Click here to read the full report.

A CNN report detailing individual stories of workers subject to abuse in Lebanon can be read here.

Attempts To Reform The Kefala System

There have been moves to reform the Kefala system in some Gulf states, though in many cases these reforms suffer from a lack of enforcement.

In 2017, the Qatari state agreed to substantially reform its Kefala system and to cooperate with the International Labour Organisation in doing this. In 2017, the Qatari government passed a temporary minimum wage bill, introduced a law for domestic workers and set up new dispute resolution committees. In 2018 it established a workers’ support and insurance fund, as well as ending the requirement for workers to obtain their employer’s permission to leave the country.

While these changes are positive, Human Rights Watch believes that the reforms have not gone far enough and that their implementation has not been satisfactory. They point to the 2017 laws as being poorly enforced and not meeting international standards, and they note that the Qatari authorities have failed to enforce bans on passport confiscations. These present major challenges to human and worker rights in Qatar, especially given that migrant workers comprise 95% of the Qatari workforce.

In 2020, Lebanon announced it will produce a draft labour law, which would extend protections to its migrant workers. The Lebanese Minster of Labour Lamia Yammine also tweeted that the Lebanese government was working towards reforming the Kefala system.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have voiced concerns that few Gulf states have ever proposed scrapping the Kefala system entirely, a move that would do away with much of the abuse seen at the hands of employers in the region. Bahrain is one of the few states that has proposed scrapping the system. Reforms to employment law, while welcome, are often poorly enforced, or viewed as secondary to the rights of employers in the eyes of the law. For this reason, attempts to reform labour law in the region may not generate the progress many hope for. Several human rights organisations have hence called for the Kefala system to be scrapped entirely, so that forced labour in the Middle East may ultimately come to an end.

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