There are an estimated 164 million migrant workers in the world today, approximately 8.5 million of them women, with roughly 19 percent of these women working in the Arab region.  Despite these high numbers, due to the private nature of the work causing poor monitoring, migrant domestic workers are some of the least protected sectors under national labor laws.  Hidden in the spaces of private homes, these women often face abusive conditions such as forced labor, unpaid wages, forced confinement, no time off, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.  In the Gulf region and neighboring states, the long-standing practice of the kafala system leaves migrant domestic workers even more vulnerable to such abuses and less able to seek redress.

Kafala, or sponsorship, is the relationship that a migrant worker has with their employer within the host country.  It is a regime of laws, regulations, and customary practices that has been adopted in all GCC countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) as well as Lebanon and Jordan.  This system emerged in the early 1900s in what would later become the gulf states to regulate foreign work in commercial trades, however it was not until the oil boom of the 1950s that this practice really became cemented in the region.  These countries sought cheap foreign labor to build up their infrastructure as well as complete domestic duties that were too stigmatized by the locals. 

Under this system, the migrant worker finds employment in the host country through the use of a recruitment agency, who then sets the worker up with a private citizen who employs the migrant worker.  The sponsor then provides the migrant worker with housing and in the case of domestic workers, the housing is within the sponsor’s home.  Under the kafala system, the migrant domestic worker is removed from the protection of the host country’s labor laws, leaving their legal status solely in the hands of their sponsor.  As a consequence, this system strikes a power imbalance that is often exploited.  If the worker wishes to change jobs, terminate their employment, or leave the host country, they must first obtain their sponsor’s permission.  To leave without permission means loss of visa and potentially imprisonment or deportation.  In cases where the worker is being abused, the worker is left with little to no options for relief.  

In a system that is already rife with abuse, the plight of migrant workers under kafala has only worsened since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially migrant domestic worker women who are now further confined to the homes of their abusers.  In Lebanon, reeling from both the pandemic and an economic crisis, reports of migrant domestic worker abuse have skyrocketed.  A March 2020 report by Human Rights Watch found that many domestic workers’ employers had slashed their salaries and even refused to pay them at all.  Additionally, because pandemic restrictions force entire families to reside and do work and schooling from home, migrant domestic workers are facing additional caring demands, including cooking, cleaning, and possibly caring for persons falling ill with COVID-19.  Restrictions and lockdowns also mean that migrant domestic workers are confined to their job site 24/7, unable to leave even on their legally mandated time off.  The pandemic has also seen a rise in domestic violence.  As a result of these conditions, at least seven migrant domestic workers in Lebanon have taken their own lives since the pandemic began.  Heightened anxiety regarding the pandemic along with economic downturn has also led some sponsors to abandon their migrant domestic workers, dumping them onto the streets or leaving them at embassies unable to fly home due to restricted air travel and high flight costs.

There are several instruments of international law that address the situation faced by migrant domestic workers.  In 2011, member states to the International Labor Organization (ILO) ratified the Domestic Workers Convention, which sets out several protections for domestic workers rights that apply to the host country, including standardized contracts, protection against abuse and harassment, and protections against recruitment agency abuse.  Unfortunately, none of the countries who use the kafala system have ratified this convention.  However, there are still several conventions that these countries are party to that address the rights of migrant domestic workers.  Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are all party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which addresses discrimination against women by persons, organizations and enterprises.  Because the majority of migrant domestic workers are women, excluding them from these countries’ labor laws is discriminatory, and should be eliminated if these countries are to fulfill their obligations under this convention.  These countries are also party to the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention, which obligates member states to suppress the use of forced labor in all forms.  One of the main abuses against migrant domestic workers under the kafala system is forced labor, which needs to be addressed if these states are to comply with this convention.

Reform Efforts?

After decades of abuse under the kafala system and heightened problems during the pandemic, talks of reform have begun in several Gulf states.  However, these reforms leave much to be desired, especially regarding the rights of migrant domestic workers.

In Lebanon, home to 250,000 migrant domestic workers, a new standard unified contract for migrant domestic workers was adopted by the Labor Ministry on September 8, 2020.  According to Human Rights Watch, this new contract allows domestic workers to “terminate their contract without the consent of their employer” and gives them other basic protections like “a 48-hour work week, a weekly rest day, overtime pay, sick pay, annual leave, and the national minimum wage, with some permissible deductions for housing and food.”  This contract, if adequately enforced, would be a first step in safeguarding migrant domestic workers against abuse.  However, a month after adopting this new unified contract, Lebanon’s top administrative court suspended its implementation following a complaint from the Syndicate of the Owners of Recruitment Agencies who claimed the new contract severely damaged their interests.  Rather than step forward to protect the vulnerable workers, Lebanon instead chose to favor the very agencies who seek to exploit them.  Sadly, the economic incentives of cheap labor trump affording basic labor protections to migrant domestic workers, and given the economic crisis in Lebanon, it does not look like this will change anytime soon.

In Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Human Resources announced a Labor Reform Initiative in November 2020 that aimed to loosen the control employers have over migrant workers.  These limited reforms, which were instituted in March 2021, allow migrant workers who fall under the country’s labor laws, such as retail and construction workers, the ability to change jobs without their current employer’s consent after completing one year of their contract or when their contract expires.  Currently, migrant domestic workers are denied protections under Saudi Arabian labor laws, and are thus excluded from these new reforms.  Though the implementation of these reforms is a positive change for some migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, the continuous exclusion of migrant domestic workers from protection shows the persistence of the kafala system’s abuses.

In Qatar, like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, migrant domestic workers are not governed by Qatari labor laws.  However, new reforms announced by the Labor Ministry in September 2020 do apply to migrant domestic workers.  These reforms allow the worker to change jobs without the employer’s consent and set a higher minimum wage for these workers.  These reforms, if properly enforced, are a step in the right direction towards dismantling the kafala system in Qatar.  However, these reforms fall short from addressing other aspects of the system that give rise to abuse.  Reports from migrant domestic workers show that employers still have significant control, including total control over their residency permits, which leaves the workers vulnerable to jailing, deportation, and lack of redress mechanism if their permit is not issued or renewed.  Despite the reforms, migrant domestic workers are still vulnerable to extortion and fear of retaliation by their employer, leaving many workers stuck in abusive conditions.

The kafala system as it stands in the Gulf region places migrant domestic workers at continuous risk of exploitation and abuse.  The meager reforms in the region do little to protect migrant domestic workers, which is crucial given the growing abuses that are occuring during the pandemic.  Reform is not complete until the rights of all migrant domestic workers in the Gulf region comply with and enforce each country’s obligations under international law.

Author Biography: Caroline Dumoulin is a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School and a moderator at the International Law and Policy Brief. Prior to attending law school, she earned her bachelor’s in international affairs and history at Florida State University as well as interned for a non-profit organization in Nepal working on labor migration policy.