As the eyes of the globe shifted towards Qatar during the 2022 World Cup, media reports focused on the working conditions and deaths of migrant workers building Qatar’s infrastructure and in the Middle East at large. Indeed, throughout Jordan, Lebanon, and all the Gulf Arab states, a system for migrant labor called kafala has been in place for decades. Under this system, states give employers sponsorship permits to bring in foreign workers, which bind workers to their employers and allow for exploitation. To explore the persistence of the kafala problem and analyze the possible avenues for lasting reform, GJIA sits down with Ryszard Cholewinski, the Senior Migration Specialist in the International Labor Organization’s Regional Office for Arab States in Beirut.
GJIA: As a general trend, what are the most pressing challenges facing migrant workers under kafala? Beyond the much-reported death tolls, how has this system of employment burdened the health and well-being of migrant workers in the Middle East?
RC: Regarding the kafala sponsorship system, I think it’s important to say at the outset, that sponsorship systems are not unusual. Temporary labor migration programs also exist in other parts of the world, where essentially the worker is tied to one employer or one sector of employment. And that by definition can be exploitative, because of the vulnerable situation that low-wage and low-skilled workers find themselves in. Particularly if these workers come from poorer developing countries where they’ve paid fees for recruiters to find work for them, they can end up in situations of debt bondage or forced labor because they have to pay back the debts. And, as it’s difficult for them to change employment in the country, this puts them in a vulnerable situation, because if they leave their jobs, they either fall into irregular status or are deported.
But when it comes to the kafala system, it’s an especially extreme form of employer sponsorship, where the employer retains considerable power over the employment relationship, as well as the worker’s immigration status in the country. And it’s exacerbated because kafala is not something that you can get rid of simply by changing the law, it is deeply embedded in other measures, practices, and customs as just a way of doing things. So, we at the ILO don’t talk about the abolition of kafala as if this is something that can be done right away, but the need to dismantle it, recognizing that it is something that will take a range of measures to do away with.
In recent years, we have seen some significant reforms to the system, which vary across the region. In Qatar, when it comes to the legislation that has been put into place, these reforms are the most advanced, and this is quite a sea change, because some years ago, Qatar was probably furthest behind other countries in the region. These reforms enable workers in all sectors, including domestic work, to change employers by giving the appropriate notice, which could be one or two months. Qatar also abolished the exit permit requirement where an employer can stop someone from leaving a country. Meanwhile, in countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, it’s only possible to change employer without the current employer’s permission after one year, and the reforms in those countries do not apply to domestic workers.
In a country like Qatar where reforms to kafala have been enacted, do migrant workers still experience subpar working and living conditions? Or is it the case that once we do away with this underlying exploitative business model, we should see working and living conditions improve immediately?
The reforms in Qatar are the most advanced, but of course, there are still challenges in their implementation. Since these reforms were put in place in about September 2020, around 350,000 workers have had their applications to change jobs approved, which is a significant number. However, we know also that workers still don’t fully have information about the fact that they can change jobs, and sometimes employers try to prevent them from doing so by threatening retaliatory measures.
We see the kafala sponsorship system as being at the heart of exploitative employment practices, but of course, there are many more labor issues, including abusive recruitment practices. These recruitment practices can result in workers paying up to almost a year of their salaries on recruitment fees to private recruitment agencies in the worker’s country of origin. Of course, if these workers are in a situation of abuse then they are particularly vulnerable, as they are forced to stay in their jobs because they want to pay off the debt and start sending money to support their families back home.
Another issue that is particularly close to ILO’s heart is the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. In Qatar, for example, trade unions do not exist. Our work there has been limited to giving voice to workers through company management-worker committees, to which workers can be elected. The lack of freedom of association is obviously a gap which exists in law and practice and is not necessarily directly linked to the application of kafala.
You also have challenges when it comes to access to justice mechanisms. There’s been a lot of attention to this recently because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many migrant workers at the height of the pandemic who lost their jobs were stuck in those countries because of the closing of borders and were not paid their end-of-service benefits, or indemnities. Connected to that were the difficulties in accessing justice mechanisms, like dispute resolution and complaint mechanisms. There continues to be a lot of obstacles to accessing these mechanisms, whether it be that documentation is only accepted in Arabic or in English, or that there are delays when these cases are brought before the courts.
You’re from the International Labor Organization, an agency within the United Nations that sets international labor standards. Does the UN lack the enforcement capacity to actually push for reforms to kafala which states are not willing to pursue reforms themselves?
This issue always arises in the context of international supervisory systems, whether it be the supervisory system within the ILO, the UN human rights treaty bodies monitoring the implementation of core international human rights instruments, or the system of Universal Periodic Review through the UN Human Rights Council. Qatar is a very good example of how effective the ILO supervisory system can be. The complaints against Qatar were actually brought under the Forced Labor Convention, 1930 (No. 29) and the Labor Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81), an instrument that requires countries to set up adequate labor inspection systems to enforce labor standards. These complaints gained traction because Qatar was in the spotlight with regard to the World Cup, making the complaints under the ILO supervisory system particularly effective.
There are other systems that are taken seriously as well, like the Universal Periodic Review process conducted by the UN Human Rights Council. Through this process, other governments propose various recommendations to the governments of the Arab states, including on migrant worker issues. These Arab governments care about these recommendations because they often present themselves as being at the forefront of innovation, so there are reputational risks involved if they do not comply.
Another mechanism that can place leverage on Gulf governments is the US State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. The TIP Report gives countries ratings based on how well they protect against human trafficking and forced labor. For example, Bahrain is the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with a Tier One rating, denoting full compliance with the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking. This is something the governments consider very important and wish to maintain. Meanwhile, Kuwait was recently downgraded from Tier Two to the Tier Two Watch List, requiring special scrutiny of their compliance for the following year. This raised serious concerns in Kuwait, given the political and economic relationships countries like Kuwait have with the United States. So, this is another aspect of leverage that is important to bear in mind when it comes to labor reforms, including around kafala.
You talked about issues that migrant workers face in their countries of origin, like predatory recruitment practices. Is an inherent part of dismantling kafala promoting the sustainable development of these countries of origin?
ILO’s mandate is very much based on social justice and decent work, and decent work is a core aspect of realizing social justice, including in countries of origin. But the reality is that in many of these countries, there is a lack of decent work and a problem of underemployment. Given the labor supply and demand equation, and the significant income differentials which exist between South Asian countries and the Gulf, it’s still very much worth many workers’ while to move to a Gulf country and send remittances back home.
As an example, we’re now increasingly seeing labor migration from certain African countries, like Ethiopia and Uganda, to work in such sectors as domestic work, hospitality, and security. In these sectors, migrant workers might make just 250–300 USD a month in a Gulf country, but this income differential is still so stark compared to their home countries that it is nevertheless worthwhile for them to migrate and send remittances home.
So, of course sustainable development at home, including access to decent work, is important. Unfortunately, what we see in some countries of origin is that they have overseas employment policies, but they don’t have national employment policies. That is a disconnect which is problematic, sending a message to their workers that the situation will always be like this.
Nevertheless, what we saw during the pandemic when many migrant workers returned to their countries of origin were measures being adopted to support these workers and reintegrate them into national labor markets. More serious attention has been given to national employment policy recently, something that we think is important.
In light of the increasing international spotlight surrounding kafala with the World Cup, the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the promises of reform, where do you see kafala going in the coming years and decades? Is there a sincere belief on the part of Gulf leaders to reform and dismantle kafala in the years to come?
In terms of where things are going, the jury is probably still out. On the one hand, yes, the commitment to reform is certainly more serious than it has been in the past. Qatar is a good example of that. The Qataris say they want their reforms to be a legacy. There has been criticism from some NGOs and commentators that once the World Cup is over, these reforms will be swept under the carpet. But that’s not what we’re seeing at the moment—we do see a long-term commitment.
In many GCC countries there has been a gradual movement to reform in affording more labor mobility for migrant workers within labor markets, which is in line with the priorities in national vision plans (e.g. Qatar Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia Vision 2030) to further economic growth and development. This dynamic will likely continue, and it is not going to go away with the World Cup. That in itself, I think, can be a catalyst for continuing reforms.
On a broader level, though, when it comes to temporary labor migration programs, wherever they may be, they tend to have features that can be inherently exploitative—the tying of visas to a single employer, restrictions on rights and freedom of association, low wages, and poor working conditions. So, to some extent, even though kafala is seen as being unique, it’s important to see it in the context of the paradigm of temporary labor migration today. This paradigm has its defects, whether that be in the Gulf region under kafala, or in the United States with its temporary migration program for agricultural workers from Central America. Taken in this wider context, then, we get a fuller view of the shortcomings of kafala as an inherent part of the shortcomings of today’s temporary labor migration paradigm.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Interview conducted by Uri Guttman
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Ryszard Cholewinski is the Senior Migration Specialist in the International Labor Organization’s Regional Office for Arab States in Beirut. Prior to this, Mr. Cholewinski was a Migration Policy Specialist in the ILO’s Labour Migration Branch in Geneva. Mr. Cholewinski is a lawyer by training who has written extensively on labor migration, the human rights of migrants, and European Union migration policies. He holds a doctoral degree from the University of Ottawa, a Master of Laws degree from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Leicester.