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Gulf labor laws ‘facilitate human trafficking,’ say experts

Human rights campaigners say the current sponsorship system used in most Gulf states leaves workers at the mercy of their employers

Ben Flanagan

Published: Updated:

Gulf labor laws help facilitate human trafficking and human rights abuses, experts say, prompting calls to end the controversial ‘sponsorship’ system for expatriate workers.

Human rights campaigners and migration experts say that the current sponsorship system used in most Gulf states leaves workers at the mercy of their employers, helping promote exploitation of migrant laborers.

Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch, pointed to the sponsorship, or ‘kafala’ system, along with the ban on trade unions in some countries, and a lack of action against employers who withhold workers’ passports.

“Their own laws actually facilitate trafficking,” he said.

The kafala system has faced heavy criticism from rights groups, who claim the system binds laborers to employers and makes them targets for exploitation.

The upcoming football World Cup in Qatar in 2022 has thrown a spotlight on the country’s kafala system, especially within the construction industry. A November report by Amnesty International claimed that the Qatari construction industry is “rife with abuse”, including forced labour and virtual slavery, amid complaints from workers that their salaries were much lower than promised.

Iman Ereiqat, the chief of mission at the International Organization of Migration (IoM) in Kuwait, said that the current sponsorship system in most Gulf countries had a “huge” impact on human trafficking.

The continuation of current system in counties such as Kuwait “will help the sponsors or the employers to abuse their rights against their laborers,” she added.

“Where’s the human trafficking? It all comes in the labor issues – the misuse of the rights of the employer by long working hours, forged contracts… abuse and the misuse of the sponsorship is what makes things worse,” Ereiqat said.

“The most important [thing] for laborers is the sponsorship system. As a system itself it’s not bad. It’s the misuse of the system that’s the bad thing.”

Ereiqat pointed to reforms Bahrain announced to its kafala system in 2009, and said she would like to see other Gulf states change the system.

Kuwait has plans to change the kafala system so workers will be sponsored by a ‘public authority’ rather than a specific employer – but the implementation of this plan has been long delayed.

“We are looking very soon to get the public authority for expatriates, which will be the umbrella for any expatriate in the country… We were expecting it a year ago,” Ereiqat said.

“When we split being an employer and a sponsor, this will loosen up a lot of the rights of the employer,” she added. “It will decrease strongly the abuses that are happening now.”

Kuwaiti officials pointed previous changes to the law that they say have already improved employees’ rights.

Jamal al-Dousari, the assistant undersecretary for labor affairs at Kuwait’s Ministry of Social Affairs & Labor, said that the “system of sponsorship has been addressed”.

He pointed to a change in the law in Kuwait whereby workers on fixed contracts can switch to a new job without their employer’s consent after one year’s service.

McGeehan said he was wary of praising further changes to the law in Kuwait before seeing how they are implemented.

“If Kuwait wants to take a lead on kafala reform, then fantastic. One of the Gulf states sooner or later will get serious on kafala reform, and it will be a very positive step. We have to see how it will be implemented before we dish out any praise.”

Enforcement is one issue that needs to be addressed in Gulf countries, McGeehan added. “When employers are found to be in violation of labor law, nothing really happens,” he said. “Someone, somewhere will have to say ‘you’ve violated the law, you’re going to jail, or we’re putting you out of business’.”

Col Naguib al-Shatti, assistant director general for immigration investigation at Kuwait's Ministry of Interior, said that action was being taken on human trafficking.

He said 4075 “fake companies” had been busted in Kuwait between 2008 and 2013, helping identify 12,500 “marginal labor” workers registered under them. “We have identified this through some of our secret agents and some of the complaints from the labor,” he said.

He was speaking at an IoM forum entitled, “The Role of Media in Combating Human Trafficking”, held in Kuwait.

Col. Iskandar al-Kandari of Kuwait's Ministry of Interior, said Kuwait had established a shelter for up to 700 victims of human trafficking, such as domestic workers suffering from abuse.

He emphasized that employers were not allowed to keep workers’ passports, a practice he said marks “a violation of their human rights”.

“The passport is always with the domestic labor. It’s not allowed for the households to keep the passports,” he said.