10 Facts Every OFW Needs to Know about the Kafala System

If you plan to workabroad in the UAE or one of the other Gulf countries, you’ve probably heard of the kafala system at some point. In media and among international communities, the term is usually tied to examples of human rights violations. But what exactly is the kafala system, and how does it affect you?

1. The kafala system is rooted in the concept of sponsorship.

Foreign workers who want to land a job in the Gulf nations can only do so if a company sponsors them. This sponsorship system was started in the 1950s to regulate the relationship between migrant workers and their employers.

Going back even further, the concept comes from an older custom - a newcomer to the community was normally placed under the care of a local, who would be responsible for his welfare. If the newcomer committed any wrongdoings, the local would also share the blame.

These moral origins are quite lost on the current system, which is criticized for letting employers neglect their workers. Ironically, they even become the cause of wrongdoings.

2. The kafala system greatly limits foreign workers’ labor mobility.

The biggest problem with the kafala system is how much control it puts in the employer’s hands.

Labor mobility is basically a worker’s freedom to move between jobs or geographic areas. Under kafala, neither of these is possible without your employer’s permission. Doing so means your employer now has the right to terminate your residency visa, making you an illegal resident. Illegal residents cannot apply for jobs, and are at a risk of being deported.

3. In turn, workers’ rights are negatively affected.

Employers can take advantage of this system to make workers accept sub-standard terms. Migrant workers who complain about terrible work conditions or not getting paid may find their visas canceled. Worse, if the employer claims a worker left his job without permission, it counts as a crime and the worker can be thrown in jail.

As a result, a lot of migrants get stuck in poor jobs with little to no pay, unable to leave.

4. The process of filing complaints itself is very difficult.

Another problem with the kafala system is how hard it is for workers to dispute their rights. Some Gulf countries allow workers to leave as long as they can prove their employer violated contract terms. Unfortunately, this is harder than it sounds.

There are cases where migrants end up spending what they have left on legal expenses and living costs, while waiting for court decisions that never get resolved. They end up with no money to renew their visa or pay for transportation out of the country. At this point, many will resort to debt or black market jobs with worse pay. This cycle is nearly impossible to get out of, leading to numerous illegal residents with worsening situations. 

5. The government has made little progress on this matter.

Despite pressure from the international community, the Gulf countries’ response has been a series of delayed promises and retractions on improvements. Qatar has been under the most focus for a while, being the site of the 2020 World Cup. The Ministry of Labor made announcements that they would change the kafala system at the start of 2014, aiming for early 2015. So far not much has happened.

The trend is more or less the same with the other countries. Even laws that were successfully passed for the benefit of migrants are often not implemented well. For instance, while it is illegal for employers to confiscate workers’ passports, those who are reported do not get punished for it.

Such examples have made many skeptical about whether the kafala system will ever be abolished, regardless of outside pressure.

6. Kafala applies to all Gulf nations, though some countries’ practices differ.

Arguably, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have lagged behind the most in terms of progress on the kafala system. To date, only these two still require a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from workers who want to move jobs.

The No Objection Certificate (NOC) is supposed to serve as proof that the worker does not have any more obligations to his previous employer, and can therefore find another job. But if his employer refuses to release a NOC for whatever reason, the worker needs to leave the country and wait two years before they can workabroad again.

7. Domestic workers are the worst affected.

The most vulnerable to the problems of kafala are domestic workers, who are not covered by the Gulf countries’ labor law. This means they do not have a set minimum wage or standard hours of work, and what few reforms to the kafala system are not applicable to them. Combined with the discrimination they face from locals, it is no surprise there are so many cases of domestic worker exploitation.

In response, the Philippines has taken steps to discourage domestic workers from going to the Gulf countries. There is also the Migrante International, an alliance of OFW organizations around the world that primarily deals with domestic worker abuse.

8. Skilled workers are not exempt either.

Though skilled workers are less susceptible to disadvantages, any migrant is still affected by the kafala system. With limited labor mobility, even high-skilled workers cannot easily search for a better pay from other companies. Some find this frustrating because they may be paid lower than what their skill level dictates, and cannot ask for a raise despite tenure in the company. Such lack of incentive in turn affects their productivity.

9. You can lessen your vulnerability to the kafala system.

People most vulnerable to kafala are those who fall prey to illegal recruiters in their home country. They give these recruiters large sums of money, often with interest, only to end up in dangerous jobs where they are underpaid.

To avoid this, make sure the recruitment agency you go through is a POEA-authorized one. Also, check any contract that you are asked to sign upon arriving in your host country. The terms you agreed to in the Philippines could have been changed, so it doesn’t hurt to be careful.

Furthermore, consider communities with other OFWs where you work. They can be a source of support and advice in dealing with the challenges of a foreign country.

10. Not all migrants have bad experiences with the kafala system.

With all of the above in mind, it may seem discouraging to workabroad in any of the Gulf nations. However, there are also a lot of OFWs who are treated well and paid fairly by their employers. There is no reason for you not to find a company you will be happy with, either.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that the sponsorship system and human rights issues are major problems to this day. As long as you know the risks, you can avoid them and make the most out of working abroad.