Slaving Away Under Kafala


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“All men are tempted. There is no man that lives that can’t be broken down, provided it is the right temptation, put in the right spot.” – Henry Ward Beecher

Low-income migrant workers from South Asia and East Asia help turn Arabian Gulf States with the largest oil and gas reserves in the world into paradises full of architectural marvels, world-class airlines, and playgrounds for the rich. 

Take construction workers, for example. They go through a long and expensive recruitment process, paying recruiters nearly USD3000 to secure a job. This needs to be paid back in full before they can save money for their ageing parents or kids who need money for school. The new employers keep their passports for “safekeeping”, which the new employees cannot protest.
They live in hostels (located far away from the slick skylines) with several bunks per room and a handful of toilets to be shared with hundreds of others. Early in the morning they are shuttled by bus from the hostels to construction sites. They are promised 8-hour days and USD300 a month, but instead working 12-hour days in 50-degree heat and being paid USD150 a month. But they can’t just quit and leave, because they need to pay back the USD3000 debt. Oh, and they can’t switch employers without their current employer’s permission.
Let’s say they’re brave enough to go to their local embassy for protection. The embassy would encourage them to negotiate with the employer and will not provide legal support in employer-employee disputes. Employers often retaliate to complaints by reporting them to the authorities as absconders running away. They’re then considered “illegal” and can be detained indefinitely before they’re deported. If detained, they’ll have to wait until an embassy intervenes, or somehow work irregularly until they can pay off their debts, expired visa fees, and flight tickets back home.
This is the Kafala system, which puts an obscene amount of control in employers’ hands, turning basic human rights into a lottery, the prize being a good ‘Kafeel’ or employer. Some countries, including Qatar where this picture was taken, have claimed to abolish or reform the Kafala, but the system’s most critical issues still remain. 
I spent most of my childhood in Saudi Arabia, where I lived in a few beautifully maintained gated communities known as compounds. I didn’t realise until much later that my family, my friends and their families, and anyone else who wasn’t Saudi lived there under the Kafala System. But we were lucky, because we were ‘expats’. Kafala’s most degrading features apply to ‘migrant workers’ – the construction workers, gardeners, drivers, housemaids, and customer service employees at restaurants and theme parks and hotels and shops – who made our tax-free lives so luxurious and enviable.
Check out to find out if you can overcome the common problems faced by migrants through their interactive infographic journey.

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