Racism protests spur calls to end ‘exploitative’ migrant worker system in Arab states


As anti-racism protests fan across the world, labour rights campaigners urged Arab countries to abolish an “exploitative” system of sponsorship for migrant workers that have been likened to modern slavery.

Under a system known as kafala, about 23 million migrants, mostly from poor African and Asian countries, work in the Arab world where they are vulnerable to exploitation.

“We’re talking about an exploitative system used to monitor migrant workers’ entry and participation in the labour market,” said Salma Houerbi, a researcher at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre advocacy group.

“These issues are very much systemic and engrained in racist rhetoric and perceptions toward other nationalities in our own countries,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states where the kafala system exists, migrant workers can be subjected to confinement, restricted movement and physical and sexual abuse, rights groups and activists have warned.

Joey Ayoub, an independent Lebanese activist campaigning to abolish kafala, said the system amounted to legitimised racism.

“If we want to speak of black lives matter, we have to talk about the actual black lives that do not matter in Lebanon,” he said, referring to the protests that have roiled the United States for the past two weeks.

“Even if the kafala system is abolished tomorrow, racism would still exist, but it at least would allow people who are themselves victims of racism much more say and autonomy in what they can do about it.”

Lebanon’s government did not respond to a request for comment.

The suicide last month of a maid from the Philippines highlighted the struggles of migrant women in the country, whose labour ministry is working with the International Labour Organisation to reform contracts for domestic workers.

Some countries have relaxed their kafala laws in recent years under international pressure, among them Bahrain, which has allowed workers to freelance without sponsors, and the UAE, which has adopted measures to prevent forced labour.

Oman announced on Sunday that from next year, foreign workers will no longer need permission to change jobs after two year of employment, although domestic workers will still be excluded from labour law protections.

In 2019, Qatar introduced laws allowing workers to change employers more freely after facing criticism over exploitation of labourers building World Cup stadiums.

However Ryszard Cholewinski, an Arab states migration specialist at the International Labour Organisation, cautioned that it would take time to fully reform the kafala system.

Forced labour and unpaid wages remain a problem and it is still common for workers to have their passports taken from them, even where the law prohibits it, Cholewinski said.

“Given the degree of control that (the kafala system) gives to the employers over the workers, you get the sense that the workers are like objects of the employer. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)