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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Is the Kafala system a form of modern-day slavery?

Updated: Dec 1, 2018

Imagine saying goodbye to your family, home and everything that feels familiar, all for the prospect of bettering you and your family’s life. This fantasy is robbed by the reality of the kafala system moments after arriving, and the harsh daunting reality is one which you cannot escape.

Millions of migrant workers in the Middle East are enslaved by a system that renders them scarcely any rights. The Kafala system is a legal loophole for human ownership, whereby migrants’ passports are seized and the scope of their rights are governed by the person that owns them. The fact that the migrant worker initially signs a contract appears to offer very little protection, as owners see themselves as being entitled to making up any rules they wish, and the foreign language speaking migrants don’t dare disobey. Inhumane working conditions are enforced with little or no safeguards, as the migrants find themselves getting paid a fraction of the wages they were initially promised, forced to work for long hours in extreme working environments, and given poor quality food. In my belief, the dire conditions of migrants working under the kafala system surpass prison conditions, and borderline a modern day form of slavery.

Women under the Kafala system:

Various cases regarding sexual and physical abuse of housemaids have stemmed from the middle east. Most recently, Headlines regarding Indonesia’s protest against Saudi’s execution of an Indonesian Housemaid has shone light on the lack of rights and respect migrant women are owed by their employers’ legal systems. The Telegraph reports that ‘Tuti Tursilawati, a mother of one, had been convicted of murdering her employer, who workers rights’ group Migrant Care said was trying to rape her at the time’.[1] Whilst this case received attention from the media, the rest are ignored. Housemaids being sexually, physically and verbally abused is an issue that is hardly paid attention to, as the Kafala system empowers the employers, whilst the housemaids working under it are made to live in fear and believe that they have no voice. An escape from such abuse is one that many housemaids would view as impossible as they have no access to their passports, and believe that the police and legal system are not on their side. Unfortunately, such fears have been found to be well-founded as many housemaids complaining from abuse were simply returned to their abusers. Secret networks compromising churches, migrant community groups and friendly workers attempt to help some of the abused escape, yet this is not enough. Cases like Tursilawati’s deserve more recognition, coverage by the media and public outcry. It is only by protesting these infringements of basic human rights that change will occur.

Future of the Kafala system

The independent’s headline that ‘ Qatar 2022 World Cup will honour workers’ rights with the end of the kafala system, predicts ITUC head’ [2] is proof of the sad reality that the kafala system will only end as means of promoting a country’s project. No attention was given to the fact that migrant workers were the ones used to build the new stadiums required for hosting the 2022 World Cup, and the suffering endured by these migrants in working for long hours under the scorching sun. Although, this will hopefully provide incentive for other Middle Eastern countries to follow Qatar’s footsteps in ending this system.

Aysha Alawadhi

Middle East Section Feature Writer

11th November, 2018


[1] Nicola Smith, ‘Indonesia protests after Saudi Arabia executes domestic maid’,, accessed 5 November 2018

[2] Anthony Harwood, ‘Qatar 2022 World Cup will honour workers' rights with the end of the kafala system, predicts ITUC head’,, accessed 5 November 2018

Other sources:

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are listed in the bibliography above.

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