Migrant Workers in the Gulf: Kafala and the Need for Reform

In the last forty years, few regions on Earth have experienced as dramatic, or indeed meteoric, of an economic rise as the Persian Gulf states. The regimes of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, who today make up the so-called “Gulf Cooperation Council” have seen near unprecedented explosions of prosperity and development since the 1970s, which has transformed cities like Dubai and Kuwait City from quiet trading ports into glistening metropolises. Foreign tourists and expatriates alike have flocked to the Gulf states, seemingly intoxicated by the visions of perfect azure seas reflecting off of the sleek glass megaliths of countless Arab skylines. The states who today make up the GCC, to their credit, put on a good show for the West. Presenting themselves as progressive, enlightened principalities, bastions of stability and prosperity in a region torn apart by sectarian violence and extremism of all forms. This has attracted a swath of Western investment, and good strategic relationships with powerful democracies like the United States.

Asian Migrant workers at a construction site in Dubai. Source: Karim Sahib/Agence France-Presse.

But where did all of this newfound prosperity come from? The simple answer is also the most convenient for the GCC: the massive Arab oil boom of the 1970s-1980s. And indeed, the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School reports that these boom years brought a “burst of income, spending, and growth.” High prices and rising demand for crude oil over the past several decades have turned into a seemingly bottomless piggy bank for Gulf state economies, providing them with a consistent cushion of resources and investments upon which to build an ever expanding list of mirage-like citadels in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. However, just because they have the money for such extensive development, does not explain the speed and efficiency of their construction. Therein lies the introduction to what the Gulf regimes and societies refer to as the “Kafala system”. Therein lies the dark side.

During the initial oil boom in the Gulf, the governments of the GCC had a serious problem. As mentioned above, recent years had brought them near-limitless supplies of state revenue and foreign investment. However, the small populations of these states, combined with the newfound white-collar status of native society, caused a gross labor shortage in the region that hamstrung development. The solution, simple, but effective in nature, has fueled the exponential growth of the Gulf cities ever since. GCC regimes implemented huge incentives for foreign-born, blue collar workers to come to the Gulf states with migratory labor status. The reception was immediate, and enormous. Today, although the migrant population makes up only 10% of the world’s labor force, an overwhelming number reside and work in the Gulf states. As seen in the chart below by the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility, the majority of the GCC states have among the highest proportions of migrant workers in the world. The most extreme example, Qatar, has a population that is 87% migrants, an unprecedented figure.

Graph on proportions of Migrants to Native Populations in GCC countries. Source: CSLM “Kafala or ‘Sponsorship System’” Presentation.

The problem, however, lies not in the number of migrants in these countries, but how the native regimes regulate and police these massive populations. Officially speaking, the system of ‘Kafala’ is a simple work sponsorship program, regulating foreign workers residing in the Gulf states. It stipulates that the company sponsoring a migrant worker must pay for their travel to the Gulf (however, as reported by Human Rights Watch in 2015, this rule is often ignored), and assume full economic and legal responsibility for the worker. However, Kafala also stipulates that the sponsor company takes full control over the worker’s visa status. This means that the sponsor company has complete authority over the worker’s mobility. Not only that, but the worker cannot transfer employment, leave employment with the sponsor, or even leave the country, without the company’s express consent. Workers must obey the tenets of this agreement, even in cases of accused abuse or substandard pay. There are few embassies in these countries, and migrant workers frequently have their passports revoked by sponsors upon their arrival, providing no outlet for seeking assistance from the outside world. Should they bring a case of abuse or lack of payment to the domestic authorities, migrants are prevented from working at all while the case is being tried (denying them the means to their only livelihood), and are frequently denied judicial aid (making trying their case in court nothing short of impossible). Not only that, but if a worker breaches any rules of the Kafala system on their end, the sponsor company can force them to repay the sponsor’s originally paid recruitment fee, which according to the CSLM, can be upwards of three times higher than a migrant worker’s yearly salary. The worker would also be subject to deportation, or in some cases, even imprisonment.

This gross imbalance of employer-employee rights has created an atmosphere of widespread abuse of power, with a deluge of reports of workers not being paid (or if they are paid, paid far below the contractual wage), preventing workers from contacting or sending money to their families, physical abuse, the mass rape of female workers, and the normalization of corporal punishment on the part of managers and supervisors. The migrants who are unfortunate enough to seek economic opportunities in the Gulf states are, in effect, turned into hostages and serfs to the domestic population. It is this nearly costless, essentially captive labor force that has allowed the Gulf regimes to implement their explosive urban development projects, off the backs of what Migrant-Rights.org describes as “one step above modern day slave labor.” Human Rights Watch has reported that despite intense media scrutiny over the past few years, there has been little progress made in actually fighting “the appalling living and working conditions of low-wage migrant workers in the GCC’s construction sector.” However, there are glimmers of hope for workers in the region. Late last year for example, Qatar bent to international pressure and implemented a judicially led “Labour Dispute Resolution Committee” to scrutinize complaints made by workers against Qatari companies and employers, as well as drastically streamline the judicial appeals process for such complaints. Many experts believe that this liberalization is highly tied to the concerns of the Qatari government over international scrutiny arising from their construction projects ahead of the 2022 Football World Cup (which Qatar is hosting). The government may fear that a lack of reform will drive away potential tourist revenue from the event. If international organizations and democratic regimes alike wish to continue to press for human rights among migrant workers, both in the Gulf and as a precedent for world-wide reform, they have a mandate to keep up the pressure on the region. For our part as global consumers as well, western tourists must do their part, and think carefully about what kind of regimes and policies they are supporting through money spent on holidays in these countries, no matter how modern and beautiful they may seem from the outside.


1. https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/qatar/report-qatar/

2. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/incredible-development-gulf-states

3.https://ceslam.org/mediastorage/files/Kafala%C3%A2%E2%82%AC%E2%84%A2%20or%20%C3%A2%E2%82%AC%CB%9CSponsorship%20System%C3%A2%E2%82%A C%E2%84%A2.pdf

4. https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/12/22/gulf-countries-bid-protect-migrant-workers

5. https://www.migrant-rights.org/campaign/end-the-kafala-system/

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