Etymologically kafala means the adoption of children, as defined in Islamic adoption jurisprudence. But in countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and the Arab Gulf states, it refers to the legal framework governing the employment relationship between migrant workers and their employers. It emerged to supply cheap, abundant labour during a rapid economic expansion, and its proponents assert that it helps local companies and fosters development. The lack of regulations and protections for migrant workers’ rights often leads to low wages, unfavourable working conditions, and employee exploitation. International anti-racism protests, the COVID-19 epidemic, and the FIFA World Cup 2022 preparations in Qatar have drawn attention to the inadequacies of the kafala system, but the prospects for reforms remain uncertain.
What is Kafala System?
It is a sponsorship system that ties migrant labourers in many West Asian nations to a single employer (a sponsor) intending to supply temporary and revolving labourers during the period of economic expansion during the 1950s.
The practice of the Kafala System has been prevalent in the following countries or groups of countries:
- Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE
Risks faced by the workers
Critics refer kafala system as “modern slavery,” asserting that abuse is brought on by an imbalanced power dynamic between sponsors and employees as well as legal impunity of sponsors. Additionally, compared to other regions, the Middle East ratifies fewer international agreements that aim to protect workers against exploitation. For instance, no host nation has ratified the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, which obligates parties to, among other things, establish a minimum wage, outlaw forced labour, and guarantee reasonable working conditions. According to Ryszard Cholewinski, ILO’s senior migration specialist for Arab states, laws that do protect workers are often inadequately enforced.
As a result, under the menace of the kafala system, labourers experience countless waves of abuse. These includes:
- Curtailed mobility and communication.
Employers frequently lock domestic employees inside their houses and seize their phones, passports, and visas. Non-domestic employees live in overcrowded dorms, deprived of an adequate healthcare system or hygienic environment, which increases their chance of getting illnesses like COVID-19.
- Debt bondage.
Even while most host countries require companies to reimburse for hiring expenses, these expenses are typically passed on to employees, who subsequently borrow money to pay them off or accrue debt to the recruiter. Employers will occasionally reduce or withhold workers’ pay, purportedly to reward recruiters but actually on rare occasions as a form of discipline.
- Forced labour.
Sometimes recruiters employ coercion or deception to enlist workers which resulted in forced labour. Contract substitution is a common tactic in which employees sign contracts drafted in languages unknown to the workers and do not understand. They are unknowingly obliged to accept low pay and unfavourable working circumstances.
- Visa trading.
This tactic was used by sponsors who continue pretending to be the worker’s sponsors while secretly selling their visas to another employer. It’s likely that the new company won’t follow the same guidelines as the previous one and would instead demand different sorts of effort which can result in a change of pay and conditions for workers and leads to exploitation.
- Irregular residency status.
Sponsors have the power to invalidate the legal status of workers staying in the country. They are legally authorized to do so.
December 2, 2010, the world was surprised and even shocked, when a middle eastern country won a bid to host FIFA Men’s World Cup 2022. The Qatari bid was accused of bribery and corruption but the bigger question was the feasibility of hosting FIFA in the desert temperature of Qatar which can rise to 50 degree-Celsius in summer with no or minimal infrastructure was a cause of concern. In the past 12 years, Qatar developed all the infrastructure required for FIFA like stadiums, hotels, metros, etc. which requires a huge number of labourers. Currently, Qatar has around 1.2 million labourers which are supplied from the countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. According to a report by The Guardian, these labourers were denied the basic facilities of proper food and water. The initial World Cup construction immediately benefited from the kafala system’s low-cost labour. Progressive labour standards were not put into place for the first few years after Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup in 2010.
Prospect of Reforms
International Labor Organization, which collaborated closely with Doha on the initiatives, claims that Qatar implemented reforms that “done away with the most problematic features” of the kafala system as the world watched Qatar’s World Cup preparations. Qatar brings labour reforms by amending its Law No. 18/2020 and setting a consistent minimum wage for all employees, doing away with the employer’s authorization of job changes, and doubling the fine for withholding wages. Furthermore, it also initiated a campaign to inform both businesses and employees of the changes and built an online system for posting notices of employment changes. According to experts, Qatar had strong supporters of its reforms that it bought that other host nations lacked. It includes regional NGOs, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and senior government officials. Additionally, Qatar has been more eager than its competitors to address criticism. Although workers continue to face repression, human rights advocates believe that Qatar’s reform initiatives should be more widely and successfully implemented. In March 2022, Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, and Dr. Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, the minister of labour for Qatar, met to discuss developments in worker welfare and labour rights.
Responses from the world
Long-standing demands by proponents of labour rights to alter or abolish the said system have gained special consideration in light of the 2020 global anti-racism protests worldwide. The 2022 FIFA World Cup has also drawn attention to violations by the host nation Qatar, where migrant workers had built stadiums, hotels, and highways while working in temperatures above 100°F (38°C). In the past twelve years, these circumstances played a major part in the deaths of thousands of migrant labourers. In response, Doha decided to eliminate the kafala system and provide other heat safeguards for workers, such as required water breaks, in response to widespread complaints. Even countries that provide a significant amount of kafala labourers have criticized the system. Worker relocation to GCC states has occasionally been restricted by origin countries including Indonesia, Kenya, and Nepal due to the mistreatment of international workers. As desperate workers seek new routes to the region, analysts worry that these activities may boost human smuggling. Furthermore, these restrictions may unfairly disadvantage women, especially in countries like the Philippines where domestic workers make up the majority of migrants to kafala countries. International organizations including the United Nations and European Union have criticized this form of employment, though none have taken effective action to bring reforms to it. In 2014, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants urged Qatar to do away with the system and establish an open, regulated labour market where employees are free to leave the nation and change jobs.
As World Cup construction projects were coming to a close, some opponents felt that Qatar’s measures to protect employees came too late. Changes to working conditions were much simpler to implement in 2021 than they would have been in December 2010, when Qatar was awarded the World Cup and the first news of the poor living and working conditions of expatriate workers broke. As a result, Qatar mostly lost the opportunity to significantly improve working conditions for foreign nationals. It will be interesting to see if Qatar maintains its domestic social reforms in the post-World Cup phase regarding workers’ rights and expands its activism in other areas, such as women’s rights, by abolishing its prejudiced guardianship system, or by decriminalizing homosexuality, as Singapore recently did. When a major international sporting event has concluded, the media and other observers typically shift their focus to the following host. However, Qatar will also host several Formula One races over the following ten years in addition to the Asian Games in 2030. These occasions can ensure that Qatar remains under international sporting pressure.
Author(s) Name: Khushi Nigam (Symbiosis Law School, Pune)
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