Middle EastNews

The Reality Behind the Kafala System: Human Rights Violations Faced by Migrant Workers in the Gulf Region

Keeping in view the inhuman practices carried out under the cover of Kafala, either the Kafala system should cease to exist or new laws should be made in order to protect the rights of every migrant worker working in the Middle East.

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Keeping in view the inhuman practices carried out under the cover of Kafala, either the Kafala system should cease to exist or new laws should be made in order to protect the rights of every migrant worker working in the Middle East.

The concept of human rights is simple and clear that every individual has the same fundamental rights and freedom regardless of race, nationality, religion, ethnicity etc. Human rights are universal as well as inalienable and are something that is given to human beings by the virtue of his/her birth and these are not privileges and they can neither be denied nor accorded. 

Equal rights of human beings are as ancient as a man’s existence but in the contemporary world, it has gained more importance as now people are aware of their rights and tend to fight for them. However, the main principle of human rights is that every individual is a moral and reasonable being who deserves integrity and individual rights.

The world is, however, is overflowing with cases concerning human rights violations – be it in the periphery states or the core states. By the passage of time, however, human rights violations tend to grow drastically. The same is the case in Gulf states, which include the following six states: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain, where low-wage migrant workers are living a life of a slave.

These oil-rich states faced a huge influx of migrant workers as the oil prices saw a boom in 1973. As a result, the Arab Gulf States saw a massive increase in their wealth as well. Mostly the skilled and unskilled migrant workers were from Egypt, Yemen, Palestine, Jordon, Lebanon, Sudan, Pakistan, India, and other African countries. These migrant workers almost doubled the population of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait between 1975 and 1985. These oil-rich Gulf states rely heavily on migrant workers, and approximately 20 million migrant workers are present in the region.

The migration of the labour to the Gulf states is regulated by a system that is privately sponsored, known as the ‘Kafala system’. The Kafala system has existed in the region for decades and has seeped into their culture. Most of these migrant workers are unskilled or semi-skilled and are also low-waged workers. But the astonishing fact is that the economy of the states is highly dependent on these migrant workers. Basically, in simpler words in the Kafala system a migrant worker is sponsored by a sponsor from the host country and the owner has full authority over the worker. 

In the modern world, the Kafala system has become a new form of slavery as the migrant workers are no less than a slave which leads to the violation of Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which clearly rejects any practice related to slavery. Despite the high level of poverty and unemployment in the region, foreign workers especially from Asia and Africa are subjected to do dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs that the nationals of these states refuse to undertake.

As cheap foreign labour is readily available for such kinds of jobs, so these specific types of jobs found in the secondary labour markets have become racialized and reserved for Asians and Africans. One of the migrant workers from the Philippines described his experience in Saudi Arabia as a ‘bad dream’.

Furthermore, these temporary migrant workers are not “free” in the host country as they don’t have access to the local labour markets and are attached to a sponsor or employer, so the worker is not allowed to search for any other job. The legal right of the workers to reside in the country is tied to their contracts. At the time of completion of their contract, the migrants either get their work permits renewed or are required to leave the country. The migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar are not allowed to leave their sponsor and whoever tries to run away is arrested and then deported.

However, Articles 13 (part 1 and part 2) and 23 (part 1 to 4) of the UDHR are being violated, which states that everyone has the freedom to reside and move within and outside of the country and can return to his/her country whenever they want; and has the right to work and has free choice of employment, right to equal pay for equal work, and can join unions for the protection of one’s interests. 

These states are one of the richest in the world but unfortunately exploit their migrant workers through unpaid wages, unsanitary accommodation facilities, dangerous working conditions, and forced labour, keeping in mind that the workers contribute a major chunk to their economies. Above all, the low wages with unsanitary “labour camps” accommodation has put the lives of the migrant workers at risk due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Around 6 to 12 workers share a small room, sleeping on bunk beds with shared and unsanitary bathrooms and kitchens and inadequate health care – which violates Article 25 part 1 of the UDHR which states that everyone has the right to a standard of living that is adequate for the health and well-being of an individual which includes everyday necessities, medical care, necessary social services and right to security in circumstances beyond one’s control.

Moreover, due to the pandemic, states faced economic crises which resulted in many migrant workers losing their jobs and becoming homeless while sleeping in the parks of Dubai. According to a report, over 1 million refugees in each of the Gulf states have been economically suffered greatly while facing increased resentment.  

Similarly, in Qatar, the migrant workers do not enjoy their basic rights such as the formation of unions and are exploited with heavy work for long hours while paying them low salaries and also lacking health care facilities. There are several reports where the workers are not being paid for several months and are being exploited. The same is the case of Jay Raj in Qatar who reported that he along with his 30 colleagues hasn’t been paid for more than 3 months and can’t even afford to go back to their country. All of these workers belong to lower-class families who migrate to the Gulf States in order to earn money and support and provide basic necessities to their families back home. 

Apart from this, the women migrant workers are usually brought to the Gulf states for domestic work in private households. There are many incidents of forced confinement, labour exploitation, and sexual abuse reported by women workers. An Indian Muslim woman who worked in Jeddah as a hospital cleaner shared that the rooms they were always kept in used to be locked from the outside. Furthermore, the domestic helpers were kept as virtual prisoners in the homes as they were living in forced confinement and were not allowed to leave the house while having no contact with the outside world.

There are some videos of these women begging to rescue them and scared about the consequences if caught with the mobile phone. Women migrant workers in every work sector were forced to work overtime with insufficient food while living in a confined space and having no right to speak freely. This example clearly shows that Article 24 of UDHR is being violated which states that every individual has the right to rest, reasonable limitation of working hours, and paid holidays.

Additionally, there are several cases reported of migrant workers voluntarily travelling to the United Arab Emirates for work but are unfortunately subjected to sex trafficking or forced labour instead of the work they were assigned initially in the contract. The women are forced to sign contracts they barely understand and are not even provided with a copy of the contract and upon arrival at the host country their passports are confiscated by the employers/owners. Around 2.8 million women work as maids in the Gulf states or the Middle East. 

There are reports of some of the women migrant workers traumatized due to sexual abuse and rape at the hands of Saudi male employers and many were overburdened with work, underpaid, and physically abused in almost all the Gulf states. An example is of a Kenyan maid working in Jordan who was extremely burnt in her employer’s kitchen while she was screaming for help but instead of helping her owner ‘kicked’ her who later died because of the injuries. Such examples are the violation of Article 5 of UDHR which clearly states that no one shall be subjected to torture or any sort of inhuman treatment. 

Likewise, recently, a Kuwaiti blogger posted a video of herself physically abusing Egyptians working in Kuwait while saying that Kuwait is only for Kuwaitis and not for Egyptians and that they are ‘hired’ in their country and cannot be partners with the Kuwaitis. Such types of xenophobic actions are very common in the region and are also embedded in their culture. Many were the victims of sexual abuse and rape by their owners and expressed that after the incident they wished to die. Due to abuse faced by the domestic helpers, it is reported that hundreds of Bangladeshi women have died in Gulf states, one such example is Raheema Khatoon, who was found dead hanging from the ceiling fan in Saudi Arabia where she worked and her dead body was not even sent back to her family.

However, most of the human rights violations are the result of socially constructed ideas which over the years transform into norms and practices and seep into one’s culture, and become a way of life. Social constructivists argue that knowledge is created by humans which are derived from social facts and are largely based on ideas, norms, values, and beliefs. Similarly, the human rights violations and exploitations in the Kafala system are the byproducts of social constructivism.

Many Arabs in the region, therefore, have constructed the idea of superiority complex and racism in them so they treat these migrant workers especially from African and Asian regions as their slaves and term themselves as their “owners”. Moreover, the socially constructed feeling of ‘Xenophobia’ (hatred and prejudice against foreigners) is embedded in the Gulf states and along with superiority complex, the Arab states believe that these migrant workers are not worthy of providing citizenship despite working for them for their whole life violating Article 15 (part 1 and 2) which states that everyone has the right to a nationality, due to which the workers cannot fight for their rights in the host state. 

Moreover, the practice of allocating menial work only to foreigners, racist actions such as abuse towards workers who are visibly different particularly workers from Ethiopia, Philippines, Sri Lanka along other African regions, and giving preferential treatment to the nationals is part of their lifestyle. These socially constructed practices, ideals, norms, and values are embedded in their culture in such a way that it has become their belief and lays the basis for discriminatory public policy and government regulations, private employers’ shameful practices, and unfair court proceedings that result in death sentences.

However, if we only look at the basic human rights stated in Articles 1, 2, and 3, even they are also being violated by the slavery practice called ‘Kafala’. The Gulf States and Lebanon have also not signed the International Convention on the Rights of Migrants and Members of their Families as the kafala system highly contradicts the principles of human rights and modern work systems which are guaranteed under this convention. 

To sum up, over the years the socially constructed practices have transformed the concept of the ‘Kafala system’ into slavery and resulted in a huge number of unbelievable and undocumented human rights violations. Keeping in view the inhuman practices carried out under the cover of Kafala, either the Kafala system should cease to exist or new laws should be made in order to protect the rights of every migrant worker working in the Middle East.


“Allegations of Labour Abuse Against Migrant Workers in the Gulf,” Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, accessed April 18, 2021, https://old.business-humanrights.org/en/allegations-of-labour-abuse-against-migrant-workers-in-the-gulf.

 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” United Nations.

“‘Bad Dreams,’” Human Rights Watch, November 17, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/report/2004/07/13/bad-dreams/exploitation-and-abuse-migrant-workers-saudi-arabia#9632. 

“COVID-19 Makes Gulf Countries’ Abuse of Migrant Workers Impossible to Ignore,” Amnesty International, accessed April 19, 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2020/04/covid19-makes-gulf-countries-abuse-of-migrant-workers-impossible-to-ignore/.

Omer Karasapan, “Pandemic Highlights the Vulnerability of Migrant Workers in the Middle East,” Brookings (Brookings, September 17, 2020), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2020/09/17/pandemic-highlights-the-vulnerability-of-migrant-workers-in-the-middle-east/.

Khalid Ibrahim, “Migrant Workers Face Racism, Hate and Lack of Health Care across the Gulf and Neighboring Countries,” Gulf Center for Human Rights, accessed 19, 2021, https://www.gc4hr.org/news/view/2414.  

Migrant Workers Mistreated in Qatar, Al Jazeera (YouTube, 2012), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NmxUDXP4LI. 

Mustafa Qadri, “The UAE’s Kafala System: Harmless or Human Trafficking? – Dubai’s Role in Facilitating Corruption and Global Illicit Financial Flows,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 7, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/07/07/uae-s-kafala-system-harmless-or-human-trafficking-pub-82188.

“I Wanted to Die”: The ‘Hell’ of Kafala Jobs in the Middle East – BBC Africa Eye, BBC Africa (YouTube, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CPCZAU47YQ. 

Khalid Ibrahim, “Migrant Workers Face Racism, Hate and Lack of Health Care across the Gulf and Neighbouring Countries,” Gulf Centre for Human Rights, accessed April 19, 2021, https://www.gc4hr.org/news/view/2414. 

Tales of Abuse as Bangladeshi Female Workers Return from the Gulf, Al Jazeera (YouTube, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iL-4Dodt9Ms. 

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