Navigating Socioeconomic Progress: Unveiling the Complexities of the Kafala System

BU Intl Human Rights
5 min readMay 7, 2024
Two migrant workers in Doha’s Education City.
  1. The Kafala System and its Primary Purpose

The Kafala system, most prevalent in the Gulf countries, is a legal framework surrounding labor, created to supply inexpensive, plentiful labor through hiring foreign workers by the thousands to meet the needs of local businesses in an era of booming economic growth. It has become a focal point of debate due to its implications on workers’ rights and economic development, and acts as a sponsorship program that regulates the relationship between employers and foreign workers. In this blog post, I will delve into the historical context, main features, economic contributions, and suggested reforms of the Kafala system, offering a comprehensive view of its impact on socioeconomic progress.

Under the Kafala System, the state provides local individuals or companies with sponsorship permits to employ foreign laborers. The sponsor covers travel expenses and provides housing accommodations, ranging from houses to dorm-like accommodations or, in the case of domestic workers, the sponsor’s home. Private recruitment agencies in the countries of origin facilitate the entry of workers into the host country.

While the Kafala system has both proponents and critics, it’s essential to acknowledge that its structure allows for economic growth and the protection of workers’ rights, albeit with certain limitations.

2. Historical Context

The roots of the Kafala system can be traced back to the 1950s when newly oil-rich Gulf countries sought foreign laborers for large scale infrastructure projects. South Asia, with its affordable labor force, became a primary source of migrant workers. The term “kafala,” literally meaning “guardianship,” is described in Arab Gulf countries and Jordan as stemming from a noble Bedouin tradition of hospitality. This tradition made it incumbent upon nationals to grant strangers protection and temporary affiliation to the tribe for specific purposes.

Over the years, the Gulf’s population has increased tenfold, with foreigners now outnumbering locals. Cultural and economic factors influenced the adoption of the Kafala system, with its key components including sponsorship, visa regulation, and employers’ responsibilities. The initial intention behind these components was to maintain economic stability and regulate migrant labor.

3. Economic Contributions

The Kafala system has facilitated economic growth by offering higher pay than are offered by jobs in workers’ home countries. It has had a positive impact on industries such as construction, hospitality, and domestic services. The Council of Foreign Relations notes that many sponsors strive to provide decent and respectful working conditions for their employees, ensuring that contracts are followed and disputes resolved through legal channels.

For example, the hospitality industry has thrived due to the Kafala system. With an increasing number of tourists and business travelers visiting the Gulf, there has been a growing demand for hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality services. Migrant workers, often employed as hotel staff, chefs, and service personnel, have played a crucial role in meeting this demand, contributing to the sector’s growth and development.

4. Concerns

Despite its benefits, the Kafala system has faced widespread criticism. The International Labour Organization (ILO) highlights common problems, including the potential for abuse, lack of workers’ rights, instances of exploitation, and restricted movement and communications. According to the Migrant Forum in Asia, other concerns include structural issues such as the confiscation of passports and other travel documents, as well as withholding wages. Additionally, the Council of Foreign Relations highlights the routine deception or coercion that recruiters engage in to take monetary and physical advantage of migrants.

5. Preferential Treatment Based on Nationality

Flags of different nationalities in Doha’ s Souq Waqif.

One of the significant criticisms of the Kafala system is the preferential treatment given to certain nationalities over others. Gulf countries often prioritize workers from specific countries, particularly from wealthier or politically influential nations, over workers from poorer countries. This selective treatment is evident in the recruitment and sponsorship process, where workers from countries like the Philippines, India, and Nepal may face more stringent regulations and lower wages compared to their counterparts from Western countries or other affluent nations.

This preferential treatment can exacerbate the already existing inequalities and lead to discrimination, exploitation, and unequal opportunities for migrant workers. Such practices undermine the principles of fairness and equality that should be at the core of any labor system.

According to a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), workers from certain nationalities are more vulnerable to exploitation due to the discriminatory practices within the Kafala system. The report emphasizes the need for reforms to address these inequalities and ensure equal treatment and protection for all migrant workers, regardless of their nationality.

6. Reforms

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has highlighted the discriminatory nature of the Kafala system, pointing out that migrant workers from Southeast Asia and Africa often face greater challenges and abuses compared to workers form Western countries.

The announcement of the 2022 World Cup brought international attention to Qatar and its labor practices. Criticism from around the world was a major factor in encouraging Gulf countries to review their migration and labor policies. Recognizing the need for improvement, most Gulf countries began implementing reforms, such as standardizing contracts, allowing workers to transfer jobs after a certain period, and easing restrictions on leaving the country. Notable reforms include:

Saudi Arabia: Allowing migrant workers to leave the country without their sponsor’s permission

UAE: Introducing flexi-visas for workers who have become undocumented, which are 1-year self-sponsorship visas that are primarily for freelancers “of all skill levels.”

Qatar: Implementing comprehensive reforms, including eliminating requirements for employers to consent to workers’ job changes; instituting a standard a minimum wage for workers of all nationalities; increasing penalties for employers who withhold wages; implementing an online platform for submitting job change notices; and launching an awareness campaign to inform workers and employers of reforms

In addition to these positive changes, countries of origin can better support their nationals by seeking bilateral labor agreements with provisions on working conditions and a minimum wage, as suggested by the ILO’s Technical Specialist on Forced Labour. Existing reforms should be more extensive and better-enforced to ensure the protection of workers’ rights.

7. Conclusion

The Kafala system, despite its flaws, has played a crucial role in facilitating economic growth and regulating migrant labor in the Gulf states. While there are both proponents and critics of the system, it is essential to adopt a balanced perspective when evaluating its impact and socioeconomic progress. By acknowledging its historical context, understanding its main features, recognizing its economic contributions, addressing its shortcomings, and implementing suggested reforms, the Kafala system can evolve into a more equitable and efficient framework that safeguards the rights and well-being of both employers and migrant workers.

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BU Intl Human Rights

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.