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Migrant abuses in the Gulf: a chance to pressure the Kafala system

By Chris Beall

The sheer scope of Qatar’s development plans, in preparation for the country’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, is nothing short of impressive. Deloitte forecasts that this small, gas-rich Gulf nation will spend an estimated $200 billion on new construction and infrastructure projects by the tournament’s 22nd opening ceremony. For comparison, Brazil’s 2014 World Cup cost approximately $15 billion, while South Africa spent roughly $3 billion on their 2010 games. Qatar’s construction portfolio contains no less than eight planned stadiums, a new international airport, a metro system, expanded roadways and a wave of new hotels to shelter the influx of international tourists attending the games.

However such an ambitious price tag becomes far less impressive, when you consider that the bulk of these projects rest on what is essentially modern slavery. The conditions faced by the migrant workers currently laying the concrete for these projects comprise just the latest nightmarish manifestation of transnational labor.

According to a September 2013 article by The Guardian, Qatar’s World Cup plans will end up costing the lives of approximately 4,000 laborers by the start of the tournament. The nation’s 1.5 million member migrant workforce—primarily Nepali and Indian workers—is on pace to lose about a dozen members per week, as laborers are literally worked to death amongst the nation’s scorching heat and hellish working conditions.

Thankfully, the slavery involved in Qatar’s World Cup plans has garnered a relatively surprising amount of international attention in the last year or so. Whether it’s the international popularity and prestige of the FIFA World Cup, or some other factor, a rare sort of light has been shone on labor practices in Qatar specifically. Go google “Qatar World Cup,” and—at least from a mere baseline exposure standpoint—it’s refreshing to see that the word “slavery” is robustly scattered among the results.

While it’s hard to excuse the lack of concrete measures that have been taken in light of this international attention, it would also be reprehensible to ignore the fact that this is not solely a Qatar problem. Though the state of labor generally under neoliberalism presents a complex human tragedy that spans the entire globe, the specific practices deployed under Qatar’s uniquely massive state-spending project represent just one dramatic example of labor practices in the wider Gulf region: a set of migrant worker policies known as the kafala system.

LIFE UNDER KAFALA

The kafala system, from the Arabic verb “to vouch” or “to guarantee,” consists of a series of labor practices where Gulf employers may sponsor migrant employees—usually South Asian—for a period of contract labor, typically for purposes of construction, manual labor or domestic service. The system is widely practiced in nations on the Arabian Peninsula, as well as in the Middle East broadly, as far west as Jordan and Lebanon. Although accurate numbers are hard to come by, it is estimated by the Migrant Forum in Asia that at least 25 million migrants were employed in 2010 across the Middle East under the system.

Like transnational labor generally, the idealized logic that makes the kafala system possible is based on the concepts of remittances and opportunity, where unskilled workers from impoverished nations may temporarily emigrate to better paying labor markets, in hopes of sending wages home to support and enhance the lives of their families and local communities. What makes the kafala system unique, however, is the concept of sponsorship, where employers and the migrants themselves place highly competitive contract bids with international labor brokers, in order for employers/sponsors to acquire a state of personal responsibility over their incoming workers. Sanitized of its nuances, the idea is to create a protection mechanism, where individual employers become quasi-legally responsible for the well-being of these migrant workers. In fact, the system’s foundations stem from a Bedouin cultural practice, which allows temporary grants of protection and tribal membership to strangers. If you were wandering across the desert and stumbled across a Bedouin community, the inclusion and hospitality promised under kafala would allow that community to feed you, shelter you and protect you, until you freely and voluntarily decided to go on your way.

This benevolent logic is one thing, but how the system translates into modern practice is quite another matter entirely. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the kafala system in Saudi Arabia, the combination of high-cost recruitment and broker fees, along with the assumption of legal responsibility over kafala workers, encourages psychological feelings of ownership among sponsoring employment providers, opening the door to all of the traditional abuses of slavery. Although many migrants in these countries are provided adequate living conditions by their hosts, it is common practice for kafala sponsors to retain complete possession of a sponsored migrant’s visa and passport, thereby controlling their workers’ ability to move elsewhere, change employers or even return to their home country.

Under the guise of patronage, the kafala system also allows for gaping legal loopholes, commonly utilized to bypass host-country labor laws. At one level, the kafala framework is immensely privatized, extending sponsorship-granting privileges to individual citizens, a process that individualizes what would otherwise be thought of as a state role in immigration enforcement. The obvious result is diminished oversight concerning the potential for abuse among incoming migration flows. Likewise, in conceiving of kafala workers as individually-sponsored guests rather than state-sponsored contributors to host-nation economies, traditional worker protections (such as Saudi work-hour caps and minimum rest day requirements) do not apply to kafala migrants, HRW documented.

Worse, even in undeniable cases of blatant abuse and exploitation (the sexual abuse of domestic workers, for example), kafala migrants are often left without any semblance of a means of redress. Although such practices are technically illegal, and should be punished in court, kafala migrants face a social stigma and perceived lack of credibility that effectively block access to host-nation justice mechanisms. Those who do manage to access host-nation judicial systems often find themselves subject to dubious counterclaims of theft or witchcraft, resulting in either dropped charges entirely or their own prosecution, HRW reported. With the complete absence of legal aid or procedural protections, kafala migrants who suddenly find themselves as defendants can and occasionally do receive harsh sentences, from jail time to public whippings, and in some cases, beheadings.

The result of these practices is a system of transnational labor that normalizes and systematically enables the abuses of slavery within many contemporary Middle Eastern societies. The human rights abuses cultivated by kafala labor—non-payment of wages, involuntary confinement, forced starvation, physical beatings, rape and court-ordered beheadings—should each raise alarm among both human rights advocates and transnational entities conducting business in the region, whether multinational corporations or organizations like FIFA.

CHANGE, REFORM AND POLITICAL PRESSURE

The important work of human rights organizations and awareness groups like Migrant-Rights.org has had some traction on influencing the discourse surrounding today’s kafala system. Although little has tangibly improved, many Gulf governments have shown some signs of sensitivity when it comes to political pressure and criticism of these labor policies. In 2008, Bahrain banned the kafala system outright, although such a shift never translated from rhetoric into substantive change. Qatar has also used this same kind of facial-reform language lately, in light of its own mounting criticism. Meanwhile, in the Emirates, Dubai has recently witnessed a rare series of public migrant strikes, as laborers there protest their slave-like working conditions.

Notably, Saudi Arabia has also launched a series of migrant labor reforms, which now allow many of the nation’s estimated nine million kafala workers to switch jobs or change employers without their sponsor’s consent. Although these reforms were launched primarily as a way of targeting Saudi national unemployment, and only apply to the employees of firms that do not meet set citizen-worker quotas, such a change in policy reveals that when these governments find it within their interest to alter the kafala system, and consequentially improve the lives of their migrant workers, they are perfectly capable of doing so.

Which makes the case for increased international scrutiny right now all the more sensible. At a moment when the abusive human rights practices of long term U.S. adversaries like Cuba and Iran have entered the spotlight of public discussion, it would be an especially fitting moment to break Washington’s silence concerning the troubling human rights practices of our traditional partners as well. Some of our closest allies in the Middle East today are the most entrenched practitioners of kafala labor. Between the international community’s current normalization efforts with longtime Gulf-rival Iran, and the billions of international dollars flowing toward Qatar’s World Cup, there is an atypical sort of alignment here for international players to leverage positive change in the region. We should take advantage of that. It would mean failing millions of the world’s most vulnerable migrants, were we to not seize this rare opportunity.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: the apostrophe/Creative Commons

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