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IN THE KNOW: What’s the ‘kafala’ system?

/ 07:00 AM March 11, 2018

The “kafala”  system lays down obligations in the treatment and protection of foreign “guests.” Kafala means “to guarantee” or “to take care of” in Arabic.

The system serves a social purpose by emphasizing the temporary nature of migrant workers’ presence in the country. As such, even if the worker lives in the country for a long time, he or she does not acquire citizenship rights, with its alleged negative impact on social cohesiveness.

Under the system, a migrant worker’s immigration status is legally bound to an individual employer or sponsor (“kafeel”) during the  contract period. The migrant worker cannot enter the country, transfer employment nor leave the country for any reason without first obtaining explicit written permission from the kafeel.


There were cases when a kafeel exerts further control over the migrant worker by confiscating his or her passport and travel documents, despite legislation in some destination countries where  this practice is  illegal.

There were several cases reported wherein kafeels took advantage of the system, leading to underpayment, nonpayment, excessive workload, forced confinement, and severe psychological, physical and sexual abuses of migrant workers.

Some migrant workers usually end up absconding from their employers to seek refuge elsewhere. In the Gulf states, absconding is considered a crime and that leads to indefinite detention and deportation.

The kafala system began in the 1950s when several Middle East countries started hiring foreign workers to accelerate development following the discovery of oil. It is being practiced in the Gulf Cooperation Council member countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and also in the Arab states of Jordan and Lebanon. —INQUIRER RESEARCH

Sources: International Labour Organization and Foreign Service Institute

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