• Celine Louis

Racism in the Arab world: the plight of migrant workers

Updated: Jul 25

After the death of George Floyd sparked Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, the movement spread across the world. In the Middle East the movement targeted the kafala system. The kafala system is a legal arrangement in which migrant workers get sponsored by their employer for legal residence in the country. The system is infamous, because the sponsor effectively has the power to withhold wages and refuse them family visits. Last year Amnesty International reported that migrant workers who worked on the construction of the Al Bayt Stadium in Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Championship went without wages for up to seven months.[1] The kafala system is used in Lebanon, Jordan and the GCC States.[2]

Colonial history

The kafala system is the main labour migration management system in the Middle East, affecting millions of migrants. The system emerged from the Bedouin principles of hospitality, which set obligations on the treatment and protection of foreign guests. But the current system has little to no relationship with the traditional Islamic concept.

Historian Al-Shehabi documented how the British colonial rulers introduced a system of sponsorship in the GCC States from the 1920s. They combined Islamic custom and colonial rule and the kafala system was born. Originally the principle meant institutionalising a patronage of a prominent local over the weak and vulnerable. The principle was not applied to labour in Ottoman codified Shari’a law.

The current use of the system diverged so dramatically that some, such as anthropologist Elizabeth Franz, have argued that the use of the word kafala only works as a ‘veneer of legitimacy’ or an invented tradition. An essential element of the classical version of the system is that the sponsor does not charge for their services. The current ‘use’ of the principle is no longer based on trust and protection, and therefore might actually violate key principles of the law.[3]

The legal system

In the system, all migrant workers enter into a contract with an institution or employer in which they receive an entry visa and a residence permit in exchange for their obligation to work for their designated sponsor. Kafala means sponsorship, responsibility or answerableness. The sponsored persons are restricted to their sponsor, while they are in the state and cannot change jobs, work or leave the country without the permission of their sponsor.

As a result, the sponsor has a certain power over their employee, which can result in abusive practices. The system requires the sponsor to assume full economic and legal responsibility for their employee during the contract period.

Officially the residence sponsor has the responsibility to grant permission to the sponsored person to leave the State. The system has been likened to modern slavery because the worker’s salary, living accommodations, meals and their ability to return home are being controlled by their employer.[4]

The sponsored person cannot open a bank account, renew a driving license or buy a car without the sponsors consent. The sponsored person needs permission of their sponsor to live together with their spouse or even to bring them to visit. The sponsored person does not have the right to participate in free education or own real estate.

In 2009 the Qatari Law prohibited the confiscation of passports, except for visa and immigration processing. The maximum amount of working hours is 44 hours per week, except during Ramadan, then it’s 36. However, because it is difficult to enforce this rule, the confiscation of passports still takes place.

Vulnerable migrant workers

The system mostly employs migrants in the construction, domestic work and service industries. Among the countries using the system are Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Some public institutions use the system in a discriminatory way, classifying contracts for contractors of America, Canada and Europe separately from contractors for the third world countries. The employees from third world countries appear to be willing to work for far less than the average wage in the country.

Moreover, the migrant workers are usually not able to seek legal support if they are abused or assaulted by their employer, because the labour legislation does not extend to domestic work.

When the employment relation is broken a sponsored person will have no legal basis to stay. The sponsor can effectively threaten their employee with expulsion and exploit them under that threat.

Abdullah al-Madani wrote in his book Asian Migrant Labour in the Gulf (2004) that because of discrimination in some departments influential individuals know that they will not be penalised. He also highlighted that not every sponsor is aware of the rights of migrant workers. He mostly blamed recruitment agencies for not protecting and informing their clients.

Black Lives Matter in Lebanon

About 250,000 migrant workers reside in Lebanon, most from sub-Saharan African countries and southeast Asian countries. However, thousands more could be living in the country undocumented. Early June Lebanon was forced to provide shelter for abandoned migrants, who spent many days outside of the Ethiopian consulate sleeping outside. Dumped on the streets by their employers, who could no longer provide for them, because of the economic crisis in the country. States like Ethiopia and the Philippines have organised repatriations of migrant workers from Lebanon.

The economic crisis in Lebanon is rapidly devaluating the currency, with some afraid that the currency might hyper inflate. Effectively this means that the already underpaid migrant workers are being paid even less and unable to send their families back home money. But the problem is bigger than that, with the currency devaluating food prices rose rapidly. Food inflation rose 190% in May from a year earlier.[5]

The migrant workers are often referred to as el sirlajiye li 3ande’ which means ‘the Sri Lankan I have’ regardless of the nationality of the employee. The word ‘adeed’, which means ‘slave’, is still regularly used to describe black people as well.[6] In April 2020 a Facebook post of a man trying to sell a migrant worker sparked international outrage. The man was arrested under the Lebanon’s human trafficking laws. IMF is currently negotiating a 10 billion USD bailout. [7]

In the same month, in Beirut the body of domestic worker Faustina Tay was found in a car park under her employer’s home. She had sent a desperate message to an activist group a month before about the abuse she was suffering at the hands of her Lebanese employers. The woman from Ghana was 23 when she died. Her death was ruled a suicide, which some, like the newspaper Beirut Today doubt to be true.[8]These examples illustrate the racism engrained in the language used and the real effect that has on the lives of the migrant workers.

Médecins Sans Frontières has voiced concern for the migrant workers in a report in early July. Access to healthcare is restricted, especially their mental health, because so many of the migrant workers are women who have suffered physical and sexual abuse. In April MSF launched an emergency medical helpline for migrants affected by the COVID-19 crisis.[9]

The Anti-Racism Movement is an activist group in Lebanon fighting for the rights of migrant workers. The group was founded in 2010, following a racist incident at a well-known private beach resort. They have criticised the involvement of the Ministry of Labour in the issue. The ministry is planning on releasing an amended version of the Standard Unified Contract, which in theory regulates the working relationship between migrant domestic workers and their sponsors. The group believes that the new contract will not change much, because it will not be accompanied other measures to end kafala, such as an accessible and transparent complaints mechanism for workers.

So why does the system still exist?

GCC citizens considered the kafala system as an ordinary procedural system that is important for the internal security of the State. They consider the abuses to be the exceptions to the rule.

The system is an effective way to control migrant workers in countries where they often outnumber the natives. Allowing transfer of sponsorship would open the way for economic loses on the part of the sponsor, like an immigrant worker leaving before the job they were hired to do was finished. GCC citizens do not see migrant workers as migrants, but as ‘temporary workers’ or ‘expatriate manpower’.

GCC citizens disagree with the term ‘slavery’. They believe that Human Rights Charters, might be a way to colonize them in a modern dress.

Moreover, slavery was not abolished in Arab Gulf countries until the 1960s. The local customs still reflect this recent history and the countries are lacking in anti-discrimination laws. Public debate about this practice was absent for a long time, but started around 2010 and gained more attention this year. Before the global Black Lives Matter protests the existence of racism against black people was largely denied, which made discussing the reform or abolishment of this system all the more difficult.

Cover image: https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/society/2018/6/26/protesters-march-for-domestic-workers-rights-in-lebanon

[1] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/firm-banned-qatar-world-cup-projects-unpaid-salaries-200611135511704.html [2] https://www.ilo.org/dyn/migpractice/docs/132/PB2.pdf [3] Franz Elizabeth Exporting Subservience: Sri Lankan Women's Migration for Domestic Work in Jordan , (Department of Anthropology, London School of Economics2011) [4] https://www.hrw.org/news/2010/06/14/middle-east-end-sponsored-gateway-human-trafficking [5] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-10/lebanon-fences-off-more-of-its-economy-against-currency-crisis [6] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200609-black-lives-should-matter-in-the-middle-east-too-so-where-is-the-rage/ [7] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/lebanon-arrests-suspect-putting-nigerian-worker-sale-200423135002619.html [8] https://beirut-today.com/2020/06/12/racism-lebanon-blm/ [9] https://www.msf.org/covid-19-and-economic-downfall-reveal-mental-health-crisis-lebanon


At the time of writing, Celine Louis is an MA History and Intensive Arabic Student at SOAS London.. Her interests are 19th and 20th century history, and Middle Eastern affairs.

The student project covering international relations and foreign affairs

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