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The Oppressive Kafala System

Updated: Aug 10

What is the Kafala System?

The Kafala system is a system in which the Kafeel (employer), monitors migrant workers.

The term Kafala is derived from Islamic jurisprudence on legal guardianship and other topics. Beginning in the early twentieth century, the Gulf states developed a new framework to control the care of foreign workers in the pearl industry and other commercial trades.

Who are the workers?

Almost all foreigners employed in Kafala host country, of all nationalities, economic groups, and occupations, are subject to the system. The majority of today’s staff are from Africa and South Asia. They often work in industries that nationals dislike for financial or cultural reasons such as domestic work, construction, or in service industries.

What risks do employees face?

Critics have named the system “modern slavery”, claiming that mistreatment stems from a power disparity between sponsors and workers, as swell as sponsors legal impunity. Furthermore, the Middle East lags behind other regions in ratifying international agreements that protect workers.

In Jordan, Lebanon and all Arab Gulf states except Iraq, the Kafala system is a legal structure that defines the relationship between migrant workers and their employers. It was established to provide inexpensive, abundant labor during a period of rapid economic growth, and supporters argue that it benefits local businesses and promotes developments. However, the system has become increasingly controversial, with a rising awareness that it is riddled with exploitation. Low salaries, bad working conditions, and employee harassment are often the product of a lack of laws and protections for migrant workers rights. Gender-based abuse and racial inequality are widespread. The Kafala system’s weaknesses have been highlighted by global anti-racism demonstrations, the coronavirus pandemic, and preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup In Qatar, but the future of reform efforts remain uncertain.

Sumi Akter’s story:

Sumi Akter posted a video onto her Facebook in 2019. She was filming a video speaking about the abuse she endured while working as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia. Her employers would pour hot oil on her and violate multiple human rights. This is the unfortunate reality that so many migrant workers face in gulf countries.

Ways to abolish the Kafala system:

  • Sign petitions. Yes, they do work. Petitions demand justice for migrant workers and have sparked a lot of conversations on ending and reforming the Kafala system.

a. Petitions:

  • If you know someone who employs domestic workers, make sure they’re not abusing them and are paying them. Have uncomfortable conversations, if you have to.

  • Support local organizations such as, @thisislebanon. These organizations organize protests and marches.

In conclusion, the Kafala System is an unjust system that violates the human rights of migrant workers. This system has shaped a lot of the anti-blackness and racism in the Arab community. We must all take action against it!


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