Race Protests Spark Calls for Arab States to End 'Exploitative' Migrant Worker System

The system, known as kafala, generally binds workers from poor Asian and African countries to one employer

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Foreign workers outside a corner store in the Al Quoz industrial district of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 14, 2020
Foreign workers outside a corner store in the Al Quoz industrial district of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 14, 2020Credit: CHRISTOPHER PIKE/ Reuters

Global anti-racism protests sparked calls on Monday for Arab countries to abolish an "exploitative" system of sponsorship for migrant workers that has been likened to modern slavery.

About 23 million migrants, mostly from poor African and Asian countries, work in the Arab world under a system known as kafala that generally binds them to one employer, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

Labor rights campaigners in the region said those expressing support for protesters calling for an end to racism in the United States and elsewhere should look closer to home, where foreign workers faced exploitation and abuse under kafala.

"We're talking about an exploitative system used to monitor migrant workers' entry and participation in the labor market," said Salma Houerbi, a researcher at the Business and Human Rights Resource Center advocacy group.

"These issues are very much systemic and engrained in racist rhetoric and perceptions toward other nationalities in our own countries," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states where the kafala system exists, migrant workers can be subjected to confinement, restricted movement and physical and sexual abuse, rights groups and activists have warned.

Joey Ayoub, an independent Lebanese activist campaigning to abolish kafala, said the system amounted to legitimised racism.

"If we want to speak of black lives matter, we have to talk about the actual black lives that do not matter in Lebanon," he said, referring to the protests that have roiled the United States for the past two weeks.

"Even if the kafala system is abolished tomorrow, racism would still exist, but it at least would allow people who are themselves victims of racism much more say and autonomy in what they can do about it."

Lebanon's government did not respond to a request for comment.

The suicide last month of a maid from the Philippines highlighted the struggles of migrant women in the country, whose labor ministry is working with the International Labor Organization to reform contracts for domestic workers.

Some countries have relaxed their kafala laws in recent years under international pressure, among them Bahrain, which has allowed workers to freelance without sponsors, and the UAE, which has adopted measures to prevent forced labor.

Oman announced on Sunday that from next year, foreign workers will no longer need permission to change jobs after two year of employment, although domestic workers will still be excluded from labor law protections.

In 2019, Qatar introduced laws allowing workers to change employers more freely after facing criticism over exploitation of laborers building World Cup stadiums.

However Ryszard Cholewinski, an Arab states migration specialist at the International Labor Organization, cautioned that it would take time to fully reform the kafala system.

Forced labor and unpaid wages remain a problem and it is still common for workers to have their passports taken from them, even where the law prohibits it, Cholewinski said.

"Given the degree of control that (the kafala system) gives to the employers over the workers, you get the sense that the workers are like objects of the employer."

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