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Kafala system outdated, modern scheme needed: rights advocates

All expats fall into kafala trap: Sheikha Bibi

KUWAIT: Human rights advocates attend a discussion about the kafala system at the American University of Kuwait yesterday. —Photo by Joseph Shagra

KUWAIT: The ‘kafala’ labor sponsorship system is outdated, and while it was relevant previously, today it is creating problems and difficulties for both employers and employees, especially domestic helpers, human rights advocates said. Sheikha Bibi Nasser Al-Sabah, founder of the Social Work Society (SWS), a non-government organization helping the most vulnerable people in Kuwait, said the system’s failures are visible, as all expatriates who come to Kuwait fall into the trap of the kafala system. The discussion about the kafala system was held at the Center for Gulf Studies at the American University of Kuwait (AUK) in Salmiya.

“I am not here to criticize the kafala system, but to discuss it. In the kafala system, the majority of powers are in the hands of employers – the employer gives the residency visa (iqama), the employer has the power to cancel your iqama at any given time, and transferring to another sponsor is not an easy choice, especially for domestic helpers,” Bibi said.

Rawan Al-Ghazali from the Legal Aid Department explained that the kafala system has been used since 1959. “After almost 60 years, the system needs attention to monitor the movement of migrant laborers working primarily in the construction and domestic sectors.” She said the system requires all unskilled laborers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status. This practice has been criticized by human rights organizations for creating easy opportunities for the exploitation of workers, as many employers take away passports and abuse their workers with little chance of legal repercussions. “If you are an employer, you want to have as much power as possible, but you are taking away the human rights of the workers,” Ghazali added.

Kuwait’s foreign worker sponsorship system mandates that expatriates must be sponsored by a local employer to get a work permit. In Aug 2008, MP Abdullah Al-Roumi declared that he was going to draft a law to scrap Kuwait’s ‘kafeel’ foreign worker sponsorship system. Till now, there has been no news about it and how lawmakers are going to proceed with the plan. Kuwait has been criticized for not doing enough over the issue of the kafala system. Qatar has become the first of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to end the kafala system.

Among the panelists yesterday were Amal Al-Awadhi from the Ministry of Interior, Eman Erekat from the International Organization for Migration and moderator Lulu Al-Rodaini. Dr Sharifa Al-Adwani, Acting Director of the Center for Gulf Studies and Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Political Science at AUK, introduced the panelists.

By Ben Garcia

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