“Time’s up on kafala,” say campaigners

As labour ministers from across the Gulf prepare to meet this weekend, a coalition of 99 human rights groups and trade unions are calling for the urgent reform of labour laws for migrant workers – particularly domestic workers.

The meeting, to be held in Kuwait on 23-24 November ahead of the third round of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue next week, will be attended by ministers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Oman, which together make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Some 2.4 million migrant domestic workers are “enslaved” in these countries, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) estimates.

And in a new legal and policy briefing on GCC country labour laws titled Facilitating Exploitation, the ITUC says that millions more domestic workers, mainly women, will be “trapped in servitude” if urgent measures are not taken to protect these vulnerable workers – especially with the “numbers of domestic workers rapidly increasing in these oil and gas rich countries.”

In a joint statement ahead of the 23-24 November meeting, a number of campaign groups – including Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF), Solidarity Center, Migrant Forum Asia, Building and Wood Workers’ International and the ITUC – have said that GCC countries urgently need to improve labour protections for the millions of migrant contract workers.

They are also calling on these governments to ratify and implement international labour and human rights standards set out in ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers.

“Whether it’s the abuse of domestic workers hidden from public view or the shocking number of deaths of construction workers, the plight of migrants in the Gulf demands urgent and profound reform,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Equal Times have all reported shocking cases of domestic worker abuses such as the story of Genafe, a Filipino domestic worker in Qatar, who ran away from her sponsor after he tried to rape her.

Genafe found herself stranded in Qatar without her passport (which her employer kept) or the right to stay in the country. The validity of her work visa was linked to her employment contract under the kafala visa sponsorship system, used throughout the Gulf.

The system restricts workers from moving on to a new job before their contract ends without their employer’s consent.

This traps many workers in abusive situations or leaves them, like Genafe, with few options once they escape.


“Huge legal gap”

Those calling for the abolition of the kafala system include IDWF General Secretary Elizabeth Tang.

"We want the two million migrant domestic workers working in the GCC countries to have legal rights,” Tang told Equal Times.

“They are workers and should enjoy basic rights such as minimum wage, weekly rest, holidays, regulation of working hours and social protection.”

“Time is up. The GCC governments must first fix this huge legal gap and abolish the kafala system linked to their employment before anything else.”

Construction workers are another group facing labour rights abuses and dangerous work conditions in the region.

More than 850 migrant workers have reportedly died in the past three years during construction work in preparation for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, and many more are believed to have been injured.

The ITUC says that unless labour laws are drastically reformed, thousands more will die in Qatar’s World Cup construction work before 2022.

Campaigners have been calling on FIFA to “rerun the vote” but a recent internal investigation by the global footballing body cleared Qatar of any wrongdoing in its bid to host the prestigious sporting event.



Migrant workers make up 99 per cent of the private sector workforce in Qatar.

Frequently underpaid, and for those working in Qatar’s booming construction industry, they are obliged to work long hours in blistering temperatures of up to 50°C, while being housed in cramped, squalid labour camps.

These workers can’t leave because under the kafala system most workers have their passports confiscated.

Others feel intense financial pressure not only to support their families at home but also to pay off the huge debts incurred during recruitment.

Qatar has made promises this week to reform the kafala system, and the GCC has already discussed a potential region-wide standard employment contract for domestic workers.

But trade unions say the proposal won’t do enough to stop abuse.

Marieke Koning, a policy advisor at the ITUC specialising in gender equality and domestic work, said this contract would not put a stop to the “continuous exploitation and abuse of migrant domestic workers.”

“This requires firm commitments and bold steps by GCC member states to close the massive gaps in national labour legislation by ratifying ILO Convention 189 immediately, to bring their laws into compliance with it, as well to take on board our recommendations,” she told Equal Times.