The Kafala System

In 2022, the World Cup is set to be held in Qatar, making the Persian Gulf country the first Middle Eastern, Arad, or Muslim majority country to host the global tournament[i]. However, the road to Qatar has been perilous and fraught with controversy.

Reports of corruption inside FIFA, including bribery and fraud over several decades, led to a 2015 US federal investigation and the arrests of 16 FIFA officials.[ii] Investigations also indicated that the right to host the World Cup was illegally awarded to Qatar through vote buying and bribery. This, along with questions regarding the suitability of the climate for hosting a sporting tournament, may lead to Qatar being stripped of their hosting privileges in 2022[iii]

However, a much more troubling issue surrounding the 2022 tournament is Qatar’s reliance on the forced labor of migrant workers, mainly from India and Nepal, to construct multibillion dollar stadiums for the event. Reports from human rights groups and investigative journalists indicate that the migrant laborers are victims of human trafficking and human rights abuses. Amnesty International reported that some 5,100 migrant laborers involved in Qatar’s recent construction boom are charged recruitment fees in their home countries by agents promising high wage work in oil-rich Qatar. However, when the workers arrive, they are housed in ‘squalid’ accommodations and have their passports and wages confiscated by their employers, barring them from leaving the country. The number of laborers facing these conditions is expected to increase as the World Cup nears.[iv] At the current mortality rate for migrant workers, forced labor and abuse, including working in 122-degree heat without free drinking water, will leave 4,000 laborers dead.[v]

The migrant laborers in Qatar recruited from India and Nepal are not out of the ordinary. According to the UN Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 85 percent of trafficked persons from South Asia and 41 percent of victims from East Asia and the Pacific are trafficked for the purpose of forced labor.

Furthermore, the main destination for the trafficked persons from East Asia and the Pacific is the Middle East, making up 33 percent of the laborers’ destinations. South Asian trafficking victims are largely domestically trafficked, but the Middle East is the most likely international destination, receiving 18 percent of South Asian trafficking victims.[vi]

The Kafala system, or the sponsorship system, allows the phenomena of migrants trafficked from South and East Asia and the Pacific to the Middle East to thrive. Kafala is a labor migration management system used by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States since the 1950s. Stemming from principles on how states should provide hospitality for foreign guests, Kafala is the key institution defining the rights of the two main parties: the sponsor or employer and the foreign sponsored migrant or employee. The ‘sponsor’ grants the migrant worker sponsorship with a work visa, entry to the country, and a job, thereby becoming ‘responsible’ for the employee through entering into a contract. Qatari law distinguishes two distinct types of sponsors: ‘Residency’ sponsors and ‘Exit’ sponsors. Residency sponsors ‘invite’ the sponsored person, a migrant worker called a makful, by providing entry visas and a job. In exchange, the makful must meet obligations requested by the residency sponsor until they are granted permission to leave the State. The exit sponsor may take over the obligations owed to the residency sponsor by the makful if the makful leaves the state before fulfilling the owed obligations. In Kafala, the relationship of the residency sponsor to the makful is built on a power imbalance. Residency sponsors have legal authority over their makfuls’ wages, housing, access to food and water, ability to seek other work, and to leave the country, making Kafala a modernized form of slavery under a different name.[vii] Under Kafala, migrant workers trafficked from East and South Asia and the Pacific are legally treated as slaves, with the employers granting them visas and jobs retaining the rights to commit the human rights abuses evident in Qatar’s efforts to construct World Cup stadiums for 2022.

One of the critical components facilitating the power imbalance between the residency sponsors and the makful is asymmetric information access under Kafala. It is necessary to recognize the contracts entered into by two parties are not bilateral agreements. The contractual power rests entirely in the hands of the residency sponsor who can promise higher wages to laborers in oil-rich Qatar than the typical unskilled South or East Asian or Pacific laborer can earn in their poverty stricken domestic conditions. Migrants are enticed by the promise of high wages and are often completely ignorant to the terms and conditions offered to them in the legally binding Kafala contract. Information asymmetry is evident in several key ways: First, the nature of work is often misrepresented by the recruiting agency. Migrants are recruited with promises of jobs as beauticians and hair stylists and instead find themselves working in Qatar as domestic workers. Furthermore, many migrant workers are motivated by the need to earn money to send home to their families. However, Kafala grants the residency sponsor the right to withhold wages until the termination of the contract period, potentially preventing the makful from sending remittances home. Finally, contracts entered into by makful often contain promises of enticing wages and obligation periods, but these are often substituted for lower wages and longer obligation periods without the knowledge of the migrant, who usually cannot read their own languages, let alone read and understand legal text in Arabic.[viii]

In addition to the abusive conditions legally sponsored makful are forced into through the exploitative conditions of Kafala, the sponsorship system also creates a black market for illegal work, consisting of ‘runaway’ laborers who fled their residency sponsor without an exit sponsor to fulfil their contractual obligations. Through the nature of Kafala, foreign laborers without a sponsor are undocumented workers, subjected to constant fear of incarceration, potentially even worse exploitative work conditions, and no way to legally leave the country. Theses illegal makful are essentially trapped. In order to be granted legal work or legally leave the country, they must financially compensate their residency sponsors with extravagant fines for violating their Kafala contract and buy back their seized passports, a task virtually impossible for workers who have had their wages withheld. Without a path to legal residency, work, or escape, undocumented migrants are faced with two possibilities: work illegally in conditions potentially worse than those they escaped, or more likely, re-subject themselves to smugglers in an effort to return home.[ix]

[i] FIFA. (2017). 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar. http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/qatar2022/news/index.html.

[ii] Perez, E. & Prokupecz, S. (2015). US charges 16 FIFA officials in widening probe. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2015/12/03/sport/fifa-corruption-charges-justice-department/index.html.

[iii] Chapman, A. (2018). FIFA may strip Qatar of hosting the 2022 World Cup. The Sun. http://www.news.com.au/sport/football/world-cup/fifa-may-strip-qatar-of-hosting-the-2022-world-cup/news-story/7ecbee86f77e5b4e3c811d2746fa77f0.

[iv] Finn, T. (2016). Amnesty says workers at Qatar World Cup stadium suffer abuse. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-soccer-worldcup-qatar-labour/amnesty-says-workers-at-qatar-world-cup-stadium-suffer-abuse-idUSKCN0WW2RR.

[v] International Trade Union Confederation. (2013). Qatar 2022 World Cup risks 4000 lives, warns International Trade Union Confederation. https://www.ituc-csi.org/qatar-2022-world-cup-risks-4000?lang=en.

[vi] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2014). Global report on trafficking in persons. http://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/GLOTIP_2014_full_report.pdf.

[vii] Malaeb, H.N. (2015). The Kafala system and human rights: Time for a decision. Arab Law Quarterly, 29, 307-342.

[viii] Malit, F.T. & Naufal, G. (2016). Asymmetric information under the Kafal sponsorship system: Impacts on foreign domestic workers’ income and employment status in the GCC countries. International Migration, 54(5), 76-90.

[ix] Pande, A. (2013). “The paper that you have in your hand is my freedom”: Migrant domestic work and the sponsorship (Kafala) system in Lebanon. International Migration Review 47(2), 414-441.

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