The Kafala System: Modern Day Slave Labor Destroying Families Worldwide

It may seem that I'm wandering off from my niche but, I would like to address a concern that are affecting many migrant workers because these workers are parents and have families, just like you and me.

Qatar is now under the scrutiny of many because, in 2022, they will be hosting the FIFA World Cup. As many are excited to cheer on their favorite futball team, the building of infrastructure is ongoing, employing 600,000 migrant workers. Because of the abuse of the Kafala System, the International Trade Union Confederation estimates 4,000 migrant workers will be going home in a body bag.

The Kafala System which is the sponsorship program of Middle East countries turned modern-day slave labor is destroying families worldwide.

Like most Pinoys, I have always wondered why many Filipino Migrant Household Workers (HHWs) working in the Middle East are abused and have always been turned away by their recruitment agencies when these workers complain of abusive treatment by their employers. Abuse ranges from verbal and psychological abuse, no salary, rape/sexual assault, physical violence, starvation, or being overworked. Many Filipina household workers have come home in a coffin. Some household helpers have committed suicide to escape their employers and the others, whose deaths have been suspected of foul play are still unfortunately tagged as suicides. When I hear their stories, I wonder why help was not given to them. I often thought either recruitment agencies were scammers or were paid to turn a blind eye, the Philippines was too weak a country to fight for these women's rights, or maybe the Arabs dislike Filipinos. Then, I heard of the Kafala system and now, everything makes sense.

Doha, Qatar. Qatar will be the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Image credit: Pixabay

So what is the Kafala System?

The word "kafala" directly translates to sponsorship in English.

The Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) comprises of a certain group of countries (in the Middle East) that have the highest number of foreign workers in their population. These are Qatar, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain, Kuwait, and the Sultanate of Oman. These countries included in the GCC (as well as Arab States, Lebanon and Jordan) make use of the Kafala System which is a sponsorship system that regulates residency and employment of foreign migrant workers primarily household workers (drivers, gardeners, domestic helpers/maids, cooks etc). The so-called sponsors (known as kafeel and are usually the head of the household) pay a fee to recruit a foreign worker, is required to assume all economic and legal responsibility of the household employee, and has full control of the employee's visa status. The contract is a minimum of 2 years although there is no contract signed between the sponsor and household worker; there is a contract signed between worker and recruitment agency.

The "Kafala System" implemented in the 1950s was created to be a system wherein nationals would look after non-nationals. The rationale given by the GCC countries for the imposition of the "Kafala System" is that sponsors will "guarantee" the welfare of their workers and assume the responsibility of their well-being (such as in the case of sponsoring orphaned children) as a form of Arab hospitality. If, for example, their ward would commit a crime, the sponsor would also be held accountable and liable for the criminal offense. Today, although sponsors are still legally responsible for those they have sponsored, they are rarely punished for violating their own legal commitment for the welfare of their wards.  Unfortunately, this archaic system has created a system of control for private nationals and has now become a tool for modern day slavery.

A worker's immigration status in these countries is considered a security issue, not a labor issue. Household workers are affected the most since GCC countries exclude them from their labor laws and social security laws.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Image credit: Pixabay

What kind of control does the sponsor have over their workers?

When discussing and understanding the Kafala System, there are 3 key restrictions that govern migrant workers in the Middle East. They are the following:
1. Workers CAN NOT change jobs without the consent of their sponsor/employer.
2.Workers CAN NOT quit their jobs without the approval of their sponsor/employer.
3. Workers CAN NOT exit the country without the consent via an "Exit Visa" from their sponsor/employer. 

As of 2016, Qatar has made reforms by introducing a new labor law, replacing the Kafala system with a contract-based system, which is aimed to make it easier for a migrant worker to either change jobs or exit the country. Many still say though, that it is not sufficient to address the growing exploitation of migrant workers in the hands of their employers.

As stated above, the 3 restrictions greatly limit the mobility of migrant workers and impacts all aspects of the worker's life most especially on the premise of the violation of their rights. It also provides complete control for sponsors over their workers. Do you honestly believe that a worker under the Kafala System can dispute the claims of their sponsors? The answer is simple...NO, they can not. Here lies the biggest problem of the Kafala System and why it is so prone to abuse. It completely restricts labor mobility and grants complete control to kafeels. The Kafala System makes it very difficult for a worker to complain if her rights are being violated. It is often used as a form of blackmail. If workers protest or even question the terms and conditions of their employment, their sponsors can have them deported any time they want. Thus, workers accept any form of labor condition or treatment under this misguided system.

"Running away" or escaping is a crime under the Kafala System. A worker will be tagged as a "huroob"( AWOL) or an absconded (runaway) employee which is a criminal offense. When a sponsor notifies the government of the absconding employee, the worker's residency visa or permit are canceled, making them illegal immigrants of the country that they are in. "Absconding", according to the Kuwait Human Right Society, is misused by employers to prevent workers from receiving their wages. Workers, even with due cause to leave their employers, are detained until charges are cleared and they are never provided any justice even if abuse is so apparent.
Al Qurayyah, Saudi Arabia. KSA is a GCC country.
Image credit: Pixabay

Why is the abuse escalating? 

The main cause for the escalating abuse, recruitment fee is 2-3 times as much as the yearly salary of 1 worker. If the worker is promised a salary of $400/month, that means recruitment fee is around $9,600-$14,400. To me, with fees this high, looks like human trafficking. If there is a "breach of contract", the worker is required to pay back the recruitment fee. Most household workers from the Philippines are poor. They are already knee deep in debt.

As I mentioned earlier, GCC countries exclude household migrant workers from their labor and social security laws. Labor conditions of household workers are not monitored by these countries and labor inspectors are not allowed in the employer's home. The "kafala system" is regulated by the GCC country's Ministry of Interior (Passports and Expatriates Affairs) and they view a worker's immigration status as a security issue. Each worker's welfare is at the mercy of the hands of their employer/sponsor.

And what are the usual forms of abuse workers get from their employers?

Forms of Abuse done by the Employer/Sponsor:
1. Economic/Financial Abuse- employers violate financial aspects of the terms and conditions of paid work. Workers are either not paid on time, paid less than what was agreed on, or not compensated at all.
2. Verbal Abuse- use of foul language, degrading words, insults, humiliation, being racist or discriminating.
3. Sexual Abuse- sexual harassment which may escalate to sexual assault/rape
4. Physical Abuse- physical violence such as burning skin with a hot iron, scalding with boiling water, hitting, starving, locking in a room, overworking, not allowing the worker to rest or sleep, and no health/medical care.
5. Psychological Abuse- forbidding worker to contact their family, confiscation of passport (this is, in fact, illegal under regulations of the GCC countries) restricting the mobility of the worker, and trauma from sexual abuse.

Migrant workers have availed of the amnesty program. After charges have been cleared against the workers, they are repatriated back to their country of origin. The Philippines alone has recently repatriated 8000 migrant workers whose iqama (residence permit) has expired or have been declared "huroob" or "absconded" employees. Without availing of the amnesty program, workers would face jail time while awaiting deportation proceedings. In Kuwait, there are over 12,000 unresolved "absconded" employee cases while there are a reported 200,000 Filipinos who have complained of abuse at the hands of their employer.
Another GCC Country, Bahrain.
Downtown Manama by Chris Price is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

What is the recruitment agencies role in all this?

To monetize movement or simply to make money from migrants.

Recruitment agencies target low-skilled workers who are ignorant, uneducated and who can be exploited. They send subagents into small villages to recruit workers, promising them high paying jobs and a better future for their families but, for a "fee". This makes high volume recruitment of low-skilled workers a very lucrative business.

Even if it is legally stated that sponsors are obligated to pay all recruitment and visa fees of their workers, some agencies or "middlemen" charge workers who are applying to pay a portion of those fees. In reality, these fees are either deducted from the recruitment fees that are to be handled by the sponsor (which is only relevant if the sponsor is a multinational company) or serve as kickbacks for the recruiter. The reason behind this is that 1. The process of finding a sponsor is not easy. 2. The process requires the worker to have a connection/or a contact.  If the worker does not have a connection then it becomes a lengthy process that recruitment agencies convey to the applicants. To speed up the process ( and to be assured a placement), recruitment agencies ask for money. Just like red tape.

The International Labor Organization, a UN agency, established in the 1997 Private Employment Agencies Convention that "private employment agencies shall not charge directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, any fees or costs to workers."

Sponsors, on the other hand, are charged 2-3 times the yearly wage of a worker upon hiring. This is why sponsors refrain from paying the monthly salaries of their workers or pay less than what was promised. I guess these sponsors feel that they need to be reimbursed for the fees and take it out on their employees. Without a contract between sponsor and worker, the worker has nothing concrete that he can use against his sponsor.

"Licensed" recruitment agencies usually distribute visas to fill the quota of work orders from Gulf countries or companies. There have been some cases of scamming where "recruiters" who have promised work abroad suddenly vanish when hopeful applicants have paid for their fees. This is why the Philippine government constantly warns Filipinos against paying exorbitant fees when applying for work abroad.

As I stated earlier, the migrant worker signs a contract with the recruitment agency. Migrant workers upon arrival are under the impression that the job they were hired for and wages stated in that contract will be honored. Unfortunately, it may not always be the case. Afraid of deportation and coming home empty-handed, these migrant workers settle for whatever work that is given to them.

Since recruitment agencies are tasked to fill job orders and earn money on the side, sponsors from the Middle East are never scrutinized. This was the case of a murdered Filipina household worker in Kuwait. Her employers were wanted criminals, abused her, ultimately killing her, and hid her body in a freezer. It took quite a while to find her- her employers paid for the apartment that she was hidden for months in advance. Unfortunately, it took her death to put them behind bars and to open the eyes of the Kuwaiti government of the apparent abuse of migrant workers in their country.
Kuwait landmark, the Kuwait Towers.
Image credit: Pixabay

What can be done to ensure the safety of migrant workers and improve labor conditions?

The countries of the GCC and those Arab States that uphold the Kafala system resist reform.

Since the economy of these Arab States has not been threatened by international pressure for the reform of the Kafala system, not much is being done by the GCC countries to establish reforms for better labor conditions of migrant workers fueling their economy. Thus, it is up to the governments of the origin countries of the migrant workers to lobby and work to protect its citizens from exploitation.

Currently, the Philippine government has executed a total deployment ban of migrant workers in Kuwait after the discovery of the murdered Filipina in the freezer. Our current president made good his word to the Kuwaiti government- another dead Filipino, total deployment ban. This is a diplomatic protest of the Philippines. Bilateral talks between both governments are on-going, but not all grievances have been settled thus, the ban stays.

Although some governments have actively begun working on the protection of their migrants, much has to be done, reforms have to be placed. The Philippines, by cultivating a skilled workforce and by sending nurses and engineers, has increased the desirability of its migrants, raised their wages, and has started bargaining for fair treatment.

Aside from providing a skilled workforce, the Philippine government passed joint liability laws that hold recruitment agencies accountable for contract violations done by an employer. In short, a migrant worker who has been abused can sue the agency that arranged for their contract abroad. Also, recruitment agencies and all subagents employed under them are required to be licensed by the government. This is to create transparency and to make it easier to track abusive employers.

Recently,  Qatar is said to be in the works of abolishing the Kafala System before the World Cup. I do hope it happens... For the sake of the migrant workers.

My final thoughts

It saddens me when I hear of news of loved ones, who left with hope in their hearts to provide for their families and who were brave enough to go out to the unknown, to come back home to their families in a casket. While there is a Filipino migrant worker in almost all the countries around the globe, the highest mortality rate and abuse rate of these workers hail from GCC countries. The Kafala system has to change. Labor laws have to include household workers, the option of changing employers or jobs should be given, workers should be issued health and medical benefits, and as for the privilege of granting exit visas, that should be looked into. Too much control equals exploitation, indefinite servitude, and injustice. Slavery.
Workers, not slaves.
Image credit: Pixabay

I wish these Arab States would look into their hearts and see that there are lives at stake and families being destroyed whenever a migrant worker dies at the hands of a cruel sponsor/employer. These workers are human beings. If the tables were turned and you the migrant worker, wouldn't you want to be treated fairly, humanely...even with just an ounce of respect? If you can see it that way, then you can also see that all migrant workers deserve fair treatment and respect... Not a body bag or a casket.

Let us all remember that we all belong to one race...the HUMAN RACE.

Update: (as of April 27, 2018) The Kuwait Government has ordered the arrest of 3 Filipino Diplomats and has declared the Ambassador of the Philippines to Kuwait as Persona non Grata for attempting to rescue abused Filipino Migrant Workers. The President of the Philippines will be issuing a statement regarding this controversy. For more information regarding this, you may visit these sites:
Kuwait Orders Arrest of 3 Filipino Diplomats, says DFA ABS_CBN
Kuwait Issues Arrest Warrant vs 3 Filipino Diplomats RAPPLER
Police Work, Law Enforcement Not Part of a Diplomat's Mandate: Lawyer ABS-CBN (Kuwait Police Officers are of no help according to Filipino Migrant Workers; sexual assault cases of Filipina Migrant Workers by police of these GCC countries have also been reported.)

Update: The Philippines has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Kuwait. For more information: Philippines, Kuwait Ink MOU on Domestic Helpers


  1. Bravo! This is a great article. Now, I understand the limitations of our OFWs go through when employed in the Middle East and why some have to live in tent cities rather than just going back home to the Philippines. They aren't granted exit visas. I feel bad for them.


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