The kafala system8

International migration to Western Asia is predominantly governed by the kafala8 or sponsorship system. Under this system, expatriate workers can only enter, work and leave the host countries with the assistance or explicit permission of their sponsor or employer, who is a local in the country.

The kafala system was drawn from the concept of ‘guardianship’ by which workers are tied to their employers with many countries not allowing workers to transfer to take jobs with other employers. In the case of migrant domestic workers who are predominantly women, this system adds greater vulnerability in that domestic workers work and live in their employer’s abode. Consequently, it is difficult to scrutinize and regulate their working and living conditions.

The kafala system has been criticized by NGOs and human rights activists as it often results in human rights violations in its application due to irregularities in the use of the recruitment system. Other critiques of the system include controlled and limited freedom of movement—migrant workers are not free to move outside the sponsor’s home and forbidden to receive visitors or have partners. Their passports are often withheld. There is minimal recourse if the domestic worker has problems with their living conditions, dietary needs or medical needs. Compounding these problems, female migrant domestic workers have little or no access to health care, support services and legal redress. Male migrant workers engaged as cleaners and drivers also face some of these rights violations. However, cultural perceptions often exacerbate the situation for females domestic workers as employers believe they are protecting them by restricting their freedom of movement.

Moreover, the conditions for employment are set according to the employer’s discretion and in some cases, there is no official contract at all. For example in Bahrain, the Ministry of Labor has created a model contract, but the usage and usefulness of this standard form contract is not clear. The Ministry has further stipulated that employers are required to pay for the flight costs of their employees as a way to rectify the problem created by recruitment agencies that make loans to migrant workers creating indebtedness. However, due to the absence of strong enforcement mechanisms, many employers do not pick up the costs. Furthermore, the lack of a contract leads to unspecified, often multiple forms of work for undefined hours. For example women migrant workers in the domestic sector are often babysitters, kitchen helpers, house cleaners, and also work in the households of the employer’s relatives doing different categories of work under one contract (Khan and Harroff-Tavel 2011).

The result of these violations creates what are described as ‘illegal’, ‘runaway’ or ‘free visa’ workers. Migrant women who manage to escape abusive working conditions have to continue to work outside the extremely limiting framework of the kafala system. Many of them are then arrested as illegal workers, detained, and then deported. As such, many women migrant workers are forced to remain in the abusive and exploitative working conditions of their sponsorship household because of fear of arrest and deportation.

In recent years, in response to concerns expressed by civil society about human rights abuses and violations of migrant workers stemming from the kafala system, some countries, such as Bahrain and Kuwait, have taken steps to reform this system (Khan and Harroff-Tavel 2011).

Women migrants working in abusive employer households have limited options under the kafala system in Western Asia. In fact, there are some reported cases that women who sought help from the authorities to escape abusive working conditions were returned to the employer. If the woman migrant decides to go ahead with a court case, which will carry on for an undetermined length of time with high costs, it is often not successful in providing justice to the victim.


8 This section is sourced from various Human Rights Watch reports, and statements from civil society.