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The Practice of Kafala in the Gulf Arab Region
By Yasin Kakande
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Yasin Kakande
All rights reserved.
Kafala: The Greatest Insult to Islam
1.1 Understanding Kafala
After winning the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar, a small Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state, promised to prepare the most extravagant and expensive World Cup ever.
A massive infrastructural project of $100 billion was announced to incorporate building: nine stadiums equipped with the most advanced cooling technology to beat the intense summer temperatures which can rise easily to 120 degrees F and higher; a new airport with a sail-shaped terminal; public transport infrastructure including $20 billion worth of new roads, a bridge to neighboring Bahrain, and a rail system; luxury hotels; and 54 team camps.
The small emirate emerged into the global spotlight for several reasons – for the bribery related to attaining the bid, for its hostile climate, and for the extraordinary costs of the projects associated with the world's largest sporting event after the Olympic Games. Though the world knows they are rich, questions of how they are able to meet the requirements of these undertakings continue to arise with little in terms of freshly revealing information.
Suddenly, and surprisingly to some, the treatment of foreign workers came to light and was revealed to be as hostile as the hot regional climate. The plight of workers who have long toiled at the front of the Gulf Region's construction boom is coming into sharp criticism ahead of some of the world's most lavish building activity. What few really know is just how tiny Qatar has perfected the practice of worker exploitation in ways that would have inspired the Europeans during their colonization of the New World and the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. For those skeptical about where Qatar could meet the demands of building an infrastructure that in magnitude and scope would even trip up larger, more experienced nation-states, the questions would be swiftly answered by observing Qatar's disturbing capacity to draw countless thousands of poor, vulnerable people from East and West Asian countries who desperately want a modicum of the global economic pie. As global wealth imbalances continue to widen inexorably to the point where increasing numbers of families find it difficult even to provide basic food needs to their families, the migration of the poor citizens of East Asia and Africa will accelerate. Yet these migrants will go not to Europe or America where financial crises have rendered even local citizens jobless, but instead to the rich GCC countries, regardless of the probable yet significant human costs of exploitation and abuses.
Qatar has learned all too well how to leverage the misery and desperation of workers to a point rivaling the economic impact of petrol dollars.
The New York Times predicted in 2013 that perhaps a million foreign workers are expected to arrive in the next few years to build the Qatar projects.
Even before Qatar won the honors to host the World Cup, some had begun to scrutinize the country's immigration system, which has relied on the provisions of Kafala 'sponsorship' that has enslaved millions of workers in the whole GCC region.
The UK's Guardian newspaper laid out the initial groundwork in December 2010 in a piece asking that "Qatar 2022 not be built on brutality," in which the writer discussed the "systematic exploitation of the country's migrant workforce and the possible enslavement of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of impoverished south Asian migrant workers, who will be imported to meet the demands of a construction sector." The article branded Qatar's treatment of foreign workers as "crude and brutal" and urged the country to use the World Cup hosting opportunity to clean and abolish the Kafala system.
Four years later, as construction began, another Guardian journalist revealed how exploitation and abuse of the impoverished workers in the rich emirate had taken a priceless toll: "This summer, Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who had sudden heart attacks," the report said. The report found workers not being paid their wages, as well as without access to free drinking water in the desert heat with temperatures rising above 50 C (122 F).
In October 2013 Amnesty International published a report, "The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar's Construction Sector Ahead of World Cup," also revealing widespread and routine abuse of migrant workers that was likened to forced labor. "It is simply inexcusable in one of the richest countries in the world, that so many migrant workers are being ruthlessly exploited, deprived of their pay and left struggling to survive," Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's secretary general, commented on the research. "FIFA has a duty to send a strong public message that it will not tolerate human rights abuses on construction projects related to the World Cup."
As Qatar was troubled with explaining its Kafala system to critics who demanded the World Cup be an opportunity for them to change and respect other human beings, nearby Dubai won its bid to host another massive global event: Expo 2020. In my Al Ittihad office as we celebrated the Dubai victory with a big feast of local Yemeni food known as Mandi, my colleagues debated whether Qatar or Dubai had won a bigger bid. One Emirati female reporter declared Dubai's Expo 2020 to be bigger, justifying her claim by explaining that the World Cup was childish entertainment while the Expo would be about business, productivity, and maturity. I cut in, arguing that if the World Cup was for children, her husband would always be a child, even at 70 years, but no one heard or seconded my sentiments. I decided to keep my critical comments to myself and stay peacefully in the office.
There were, of course, forthcoming reports criticizing Dubai's 'sponsorship' system in the international media, while the local media ran tributes about the country's great achievements.
All of the reports came to the same conclusion: dismantle Kafala. It is pure slavery, not sponsorship, and soon many came to realize that even high-profile events could not force changes in the practice. Another GCC nation, Saudi Arabia, plays host regularly to the largest religious ritual gathering in the world (Hajj) but its appalling mistreatment of poor foreign workers has never abated and the Kafala system remains securely in place. With the sonorous texts of Islam calling for justice and equality of all human beings, regardless of their race or country of origin, the continued implementation of Kafala in the holy lands is the gravest insult to Islam.
1.2 So what is Kafala?
The words and phrases "Kafala sponsorship" and "Kafeel" (representing the sponsor) come from the Arabic root "Ka Fa La" meaning "guardian," "vouch for," or "take responsibility for" someone.
The term comes from the Bedouin customs of temporarily granting strangers shelter, food, protection, and even tribal affiliation for specific purposes.
There are a few verses in the Quran that also have some references to Kafala and in each of these verses the translations have referred to the word as "in care of"; for example, in one verse God places Maryam (Mary) in the care of Zakariya. In another reference when two disputants come in front of the prophet Daudi (David) seeking his counsel, one complains that his brother has 99 ewes while he possesses only one. The brother demands that he put even that one he has in his care. If one draws similarities between what is written in the Quran and the Kafala in the GCC countries today, one quickly encounters problems. Today the term "care" has been replaced with exploitation and abuse in the relationship between the GCC citizen sponsors and their sponsored immigrants.
The term Kafala has traditionally been applied in the canon of Islamic literature to refer to "security" in financial terms or "guarantor" in legal court language. When the Islamic court, like other courts, asks for a Kafeel (a sponsor), it requires an individual to stand in for the person requesting sponsorship as a guarantor, to guarantee the court to which your request for Kafala will be heard. It is this connotation that one scholar from the Sharjah Awqaf Mosque explained in relating to Kafala as an immigration system. He added that by instituting Kafala the GCC governments wanted a local who would guarantee the visiting person stays within the designated limits of visit or work time and would promise to turn the individual over to authorities if he (or she) went missing.
However, the scholar said the system could not be defended on identifiable merited ties to Islam and that the topic demanded further research by Islamic scholars, especially concerning its modern-day applicability in all GCC countries. The Kafala system was adopted as an immigration protocol for the GCC countries in the late 1950s when oil revenue started flowing in the region. The GCC nations needed more foreigners to work in their oil fields and to do most of their domestic work that they no longer could (nor wanted to) do, given the raise in status and flow of oil money.
Today the system prevails in all GCC countries of the UAE, including Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Bahrain as well as other Arab states such as Jordan and Lebanon.
The Kafala system gave every citizen in a GCC state the right to sponsor a certain number of people for the purposes of coming to their respective countries as employees or domestic workers. Foreigners from European or American countries are exempted from having a Kafala if they are on visit or tour in some of these countries. Saudi Arabia is the exception here. But if they want to work in any of these countries they need a Kafala as well, and generally that sponsor would be their employer.
The employment relationship in the Kafala system is the only legal basis by which a worker can remain in the country, as overseas nationals are largely ineligible for permanent residency status or citizenship. In business, employers in all categories had been assumed to be the sponsors of their employees. But foreign business persons or investors also needed to have a local citizen sponsor before they could turn around and sponsor their employees.
Children of expatriates are only sponsored by their fathers and their ability to stay in the UAE is contingent upon this sponsorship. Boys must seek alternative sponsors when they become employees after their 18 birthday, or, in some countries like Saudi Arabia, it is illegal to have a young male of 21 on parental sponsorship while young women would be eligible for their husband's sponsorship at marriage.
Kafala regulates foreign labor through citizen sponsorships. This functions as a built-in enforcement mechanism for temporary residency by holding citizens directly responsible for the residency violations of non-citizens. This process of vouching for someone is unlike the enforcement mechanism often used by banks or bail-bond agencies when they require a third party to co-sign a loan or bond with the borrower being potentially held responsible in the case of defection. This sponsorship arrangement effectively privatizes some of the costs of migration and enforcement by directly holding individual citizens financially and legally accountable for each and every non-citizen. Through Kafala the states delegate to private citizens the surveillance of migration."
Under the Kafala system the GCC countries were able to abdicate their responsibilities of protecting the rights of migrant workers and having them delegated entirely to the purview of sponsors.
This is not an open system that allows foreign workers to have residency visas to legally enter the country and then compete in the labor market for jobs. Rather, each non-citizen worker enters the country already tied to a particular job that is sponsored by a national citizen or company (Kafeel).
The system is centrally administered and regulated through the Ministries of Interior of each GCC country.
The worker is not free to choose his or her sponsor, as the recruitment agents do this and even when the sponsor is abusive the worker is also not permitted to transfer or change the sponsor lest he or she will be deported.
Kafala also does not place the worker and his/her employer on equal levels with regard to the salaries or benefits allowable to take home, and once a worker is in the GCC and discovers the employment arrangement either to be poor or deceptive, that worker has little choice and cannot back out and find another sponsor.
There is no other currently operating system that is as widely criticized as Kafala. It ranks as badly as apartheid in South Africa. Kafala is ruthless system devoid of any compassion which embeds insensitivity among local citizens concerning the suffering of immigrant workers. The researcher Pardis Mahdavi compared the Kafala system to structural violence favoring the sponsors. The rules operate in only one direction with regard to whom they protect.
The Migration Forum in Asia called Kafala a costly, bureaucratically flawed restrictive immigration system.
It is appalling to consider that so many people enter a labor migration system that carries such significant detrimental risk to their long-term physical and psychological well-being. Despite their numbers, migrant workers have limited options for protection or influence under the sponsorship system.
1.3 The Kafala Lobby
The calls for abolishing Kafala continue to grow, as stories of inhumane treatment continue to spread in the press and through social and digital media channels. Still few, even of those directly involved in Kafala arrangements, grasp the negative impacts. There is still wide confusion about Kafala, given its roots in the 1950s when it was adopted as a hospitable gesture of Bedouin Arabs toward foreign travelers. Others say that claims about the inhumane nature of Kafala are heavily exaggerated and do not rise to a level sufficient to warrant abolition. There are also the benefactors of this exploitative system. Local citizens enjoy the power the system puts into their hands and Kafala has emerged to help locals assert their socioeconomic status in their communities, especially if they can publicize how many immigrants they sponsor through Kafala.
The GCC countries lack the bold political will to replace the Kafala system with a fairer immigration system and this is exacerbated by the perception that the poor countries in East Asia and Africa, which are responsible for funneling the largest numbers of migrant workers into the Emirates, lack bargaining power given their economic dependence on remittances sent home by these migrant workers.
Of course, the strongest opponents against reforming the Kafala system and replacing it with more fair immigration reforms are the ruling elites. As architects of this inhumane system, they can profit and leverage the fruits of exploitation with locals. Thus, citizens can safely abuse housekeeping employees or default on their payments but they would still not be blacklisted or denied more victims. The ruling elites have consolidated a unilateral laissez-faire arrangement that has virtually shut out locals from any potential form of relief or redress for abuses. So entrenched is the system that even those who find it disturbing would have no choice as it is being fostered by the governments or rulers as a normal way of doing business. In effect, the GCC has shut off any pragmatic channel for addressing the real and urgent concerns of worker abuses and exploitations.
The local citizens also fear that abolishing Kafala would wipe away all the wealth they have accumulated as individuals from the work of these immigrants. Everything has been so intricately interwoven that a single strand could unravel the system in total and cause widespread economic damage.
An economically strong local business community is expected to oppose any systematic reform even if its members are not within or closely allied to members of the ruling families because many also have enjoyed the halo effect of surpluses, courtesy of Kafala. A recent survey from Qatar University's social and economic survey research institute found that 88 percent of Qataris sampled did not want the Kafala system reformed, and, in fact, 30 percent wanted it strengthened. Other locals also have become so accustomed to accept any policy the ruling elites throw their way, mainly because they risk losing economic stability if they challenge the status quo. Such citizens deem Kafala as a prescription, not choice, but once they are sensitized toward viable fair and just alternatives, they can articulate arguments to ban Kafala and to replace it with a system that is universally based on economic justice and common welfare for all workers.
The Kafala lobby group has regrettably persuaded many citizens that things would be worse for many of the immigrants in their countries without the system, and that whatever oppression and abuse they might experience in the GCC could never be harder than the economic uncertainty. Trying to sell the merits of the argument on the glass-half-full philosophy is as intellectually dishonest as it is unethical, especially when the glass unfortunately is empty from the vantage point of the Kafala worker. The Kafala lobbyists know that their arguments are precarious, because once stripped naked of these mildly socially appreciative virtues, many would understand just how cruelly unjust the system has become. There is historic precedent, as we see in the United States, which even to this day still struggles with the aftermath of the Civil War and the absolute moral wrongness of slavery. To wit: "a slave on board a Guineman, in respect of Food and Attention, is as well, perhaps better, situated than many kings and princes in their country. The slaves here will sleep better than Gentlemen do on shore ... they are comfortably lodged in Rooms fitted up for them ... They lie on the bare boards, but the greatest princes in their own country lie on their mats, with a log of wood for their Pillow."
Excerpted from Slave States by Yasin Kakande. Copyright © 2014 Yasin Kakande. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
1. Kafala: The Greatest Insult to Islam,
2. Segregation and Desperation,
3. Enslavement: Losing Human Dignity,
4. Bureaucracy: "Eating People's Money with Greed",
5. Sexual Starvation,