Columns / Discourse / September 29, 2010

World Politics Corner: The Kafeel system

Long criticized as modern day slavery at worst and human trafficking at best, Kuwait is coming to vote on repealing the Sponsorship System known as the Kafeel System.

The Kafeel system is used in many Arab countries with the exception of Bahrain, which repealed the law in 2009. This allows foreign workers to come into Kuwait only when sponsored by a Kuwaiti employer. The worker’s visa is entirely dependent on the employer, who can withdraw permission to quit the job or leave the country on vacation, using the visa as blackmail.

The Kafeel system has been responsible for creating a foreign workforce in Kuwait that is repeatedly abused and overworked. The dilemma is much like that of illegal immigrants in the United States. Employers can blackmail workers into little pay, long hours and no benefits whatsoever. Most of these workers cannot find opportunity back home and come to Kuwait for work. The Kafeel System impacts all walks of life in the foreign demographic, as it is not specified for one kind of job over another, doctors can also find themselves in this predicament, although it is more prevalent in labor workforces.

Arab Times Kuwait reported, “Sources said the ministry recently found many cases in which the sponsors take drastic measures against their workers for allegedly incurring excessive absences, even if the employees have actually reported for work…. Sources added the ministry also discovered a number of fabricated complaints on employee absenteeism with sponsors collecting money from the workers and putting pressure on them not to demand their salaries and other privileges, such as annual leaves, bonuses and indemnity.”

The ability to fight the status quo is nearly impossible because lawyers are expensive and there are few laws protecting the workers’ rights.

Currently there are 100,000 expatriates in Kuwait illegally, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. Part of the problem is bogus companies bringing in foreign workers under false pretenses and leaving them in Kuwait on the streets.

Kuwait is planning to create a committee to check on the status of foreign workers, ensure they are given their rights as well as the ability to quit or change jobs without fear.

“This will allow all workers to apply for a residency under the same rules and what I would describe through ‘one fair employer,’” Mohammad Al-Kandari, Undersecretary to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, said.

“The new labor law states that a worker can transfer his residency from one employee to another after a period of time without taking anyone’s permission. The point here is that residency would not require any transferring because residency permits will already be set by the public authority and need not be shifted to any other authority,” he added.

This new endeavor will have major repercussions for Kuwait seeing as the country’s population is only one-third Kuwaiti and two-thirds are foreign workers. The changes may take effect on Liberation Day, giving that day a whole new meaning to the many foreign workers who have been calling Kuwait their home for years.

Rana Tahir
Rana Tahir is a political columnist for The Knox Student, primarily covering international issues. She will graduate in June 2013 with degrees in political science and creative writing, after which she will attend the University of Denver's publishing institute.

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