In 2022, hundreds of thousands of fans from every corner instances of abuse, both in countries that send migrants and of the world will descend upon the tiny Gulf state of Qatar to rambunctiously cheer on their favorite soccer teams. Before the festivities of the FIFA World Cup begin, however, a migration in the opposite direction will take place—a movement of thousands of dead migrant laborers, returning to their native countries in body bags.
The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that over 4,000 workers will die building infrastructure for Qatar’s World Cup by 2022. This staggering figure, however, only reflects the deaths of migrants from India and Nepal, not taking into account the multitude of other Asian nationals laboring in Qatar and the Middle East. Currently, over 600,000 migrants from throughout South and Southeast Asia are at work in the region.
In fact, the plight of South and Southeast Asian workers in Qatar is only one manifestation of the problems generated by the extensive network of migrant labor linking Asia and the Gulf states known as the kafala system. Under the kafala, millions of men and women are contracted in their home countries to work in the Middle East. Migrants are paired with a kafeel, a sponsor who is responsible for bringing the foreigners into the Gulf country and employing them. For the duration of their stay, the workers are legally bound to their sponsor. They cannot change employers or return home without permission.
This system of indentured servitude has led to innumerable those that receive them. Workers are often charged exorbitant recruitment fees, have their pay withheld, and cannot leave the Gulf when they want to return home. In 2014, the United Nations called on Qatar to abolish the kafala. Human Rights Watch has extensively publicized human rights violations in the country as well. However, outcries by foreign states have been largely absent, and without the threat of economic sanctions, most Gulf States have been able to resist significant change.
Intransigent Gulf governments certainly play a central role in perpetuating the injustices that are occurring, but they are not the entirety of the problem. Following the path of migration from villages in Asia to the vast construction projects in the Middle East reveals that abuse of migrants begins at home. At every step of the journey from home countries to the Gulf, private actors profit from the exploitative system of moving workers. Deceitful contracts, exorbitant recruitment fees, and crippling debt leave migrants in a vulnerable position before they even arrive in the Middle East.
A Treacherous Operation
To trace the processes of migration under the kafala system, consider the case of a hypothetical Javanese migrant, Bambang. Bambang lives in a small village in rural Indonesia. There are few employment opportunities around him and he has a family to support. Without a good job or much money, he is intrigued when he hears about the opportunity to work in the Gulf. To Bambang, it sounds like the chance to fund his children’s education and to support his elderly parents.
Like any prospective migrant travelling to the Gulf, Bambang must first find a sponsor who will award him a visa. This process is not easy, and either requires a connection to someone already working in the Middle East or the use of a private company that facilitates migration. Dovelyn Agunias, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, spoke with the HPR about the variations in this process. “The trajectory depends on what country you are looking at. For South Asia, most migrants leave on their own through visas that were provided by friends or relatives,” she said. Personal connections can either put migrants in contact with Middle Eastern sponsors or illegally sell them visas directly.
On the other hand, adds Agunias, “for Filipinos, for Indonesians, most of them leave through recruitment agencies, where they apply in the country of origin and the recruitment agent has the visa.” These licensed recruitment agencies take a variety of forms. Some are controlled by Asian nationals, while others are branches of multinational corporations. They make money by connecting migrants with visas to work in the Gulf. Usually, recruitment agencies distribute visas to fill work orders that they have received from a Gulf company. In other cases, they sell visas to migrants for jobs that do not actually exist.
Bambang, lacking the resources to travel, hears about an agent that is coming to his village looking for workers. Seizing the chance, he talks to the agent who describes the glittering towers that are being built in the Gulf and the wealth to be made working on them. Bambang is recruited, and he pays the agent a fee to connect him to a larger agency in Jakarta.
Bambang has dealt with one of the many middlemen that profit from moving prospective migrants to the next phase of their journey. Known as subagents, these middlemen roam the countryside, recruiting in small villages. According to a source with familiarity of the situation who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject, recruitment agencies and subagents “target low skilled workers that basically are ignorant and that can be exploited easily.” Because of the fees that migrants must pay to the subagents for helping them find work, high volume recruitment of unskilled laborers is a lucrative business.
Formally, private recruitment agencies should not charge migrants. The International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, established in the 1997 Private Employment Agencies Convention that “private employment agencies shall not charge directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, any fees or costs to workers.” The cost should be absorbed by the companies based out of the Gulf that contract workers. In reality however, this is not the case.
Instead of assuming the cost of visas and travel, contracting firms and recruitment agencies shift it onto migrants. Boston
University international relations professor Noora Lori told the HPR that “even though legally the sponsor is supposed to pay all of the visa fees, what actually happens in practice is that people who are recruiting from that side are already charging migrant workers to pay for these visas.” Migrant laborers who desire to work in the Gulf rarely have the resources to pay these costs up front, and must resort to taking on heavy debt in order to complete the journey.
In some cases, origin-country governments are complicit in the exploitation of migrants. According to the HPR’s anonymous informant, “There is a huge machinery at the source, and many high-level officials are involved in making money through the political economy of recruitment.” Licensed recruitment agencies often have close ties to government figures, or in certain cases are owned by them. Officials also profit off of kickbacks received from agencies.
Beyond these nefarious sources of income, governments benefit from sending migrants abroad because of the sums of money that workers send home to their families. These remittances contribute considerably to the economies of many Asian countries—in Nepal, for example, remittances account for 28.8 percent of the GDP. In the Philippines, the figure is 10 percent. In Pakistan, it’s over six percent. Because of the financial benefits, governments are intricately linked with the network of labor movement that systematically disadvantages so many Gulf-bound migrants.
Deceit Upon Arrival
When Bambang finally arrives in Jakarta at the recruitment agency, he is presented with a contract that says he will earn $400 per month. Bambang must take a loan to cover the recruitment and travel costs, but on his new salary, he will be able to afford to make payments and to send money home to his family. He signs and travels to Qatar.
Once in the Gulf, he is told he will be paid $250 per month. Bambang tells his sponsor that he had signed a different deal back home. His sponsor tells him that these are the new terms and says he can either work or go back to Indonesia. Heavily indebted, with no knowledge of Arabic or the Qatari legal system, Bambang accepts the new terms and goes to work.
To Bambang, the terms of the contract seemed so lucrative that he was willing to indebt himself so that he could begin working and sending money back to his family. The contracts that migrants sign in their home countries, however, are not always honored once migrants reach the Gulf. Lori observed that frequently, “we’re talking about people who are illiterate, so already there is this barrier, but they’re agreeing upon a certain set of conditions. When they come to the Gulf, they’re dealing with a whole new contract. It’s in Arabic, and the wages are different.”
In the Middle East, workers operating under the kafala have few practical channels for redress. Legally, it is extremely difficult for workers to bring a suit against their employers because they are constrained by language barriers and the financial realities of a prolonged court battle. Additionally, the system constrains workers from improving their situation outside of the courtroom because of restrictions on collective action such as unionizing and striking. Workers’ passports are often confiscated by sponsor companies, and exit visas are seldom issued, leaving the migrants stranded in the Gulf.
Efforts at Reform
Since international pressure to reform the kafala system has not resulted in substantial economic threats to the Arab countries, these Gulf states have few incentives to offer increased protection to the migrant laborers fueling their economies. However, countries in South and Southeast Asia, despite the motivations to ship labor abroad, could work more deliberately to protect their citizens’ rights.
Some governments have actively begun work to protect their migrants from exploitation. Notably, the Philippines has succeeded in bargaining for fairer worker treatment overseas by cultivating a skilled workforce and adopting innovative regulations. By sending more nurses and engineers, the Philippines has increased the desirability of its migrants and raised their wages. To protect migrants once they arrive, the Philippines passed joint liability laws that hold Filipino recruitment agencies accountable for contract violations by a foreign employer. A worker that has been mistreated in the Gulf can sue the agency that arranged their contract in the Philippines.
Reformers have proposed that origin countries require all recruitment agencies and middlemen to be licensed with the governments of the states in which they operate. This would greatly increase the transparency of the migration process and allow government officials to more easily track and hold accountable potential exploiters. Others have suggested that origin countries should negotiate with Gulf states to allow workers to change employers once they have arrived in the Middle East. This, they say, would incentivize sponsor companies to offer better working conditions and higher salaries in efforts to attract labor.
Nevertheless, while bright spots like the programs in the Philippines do exist, the kafala system remains rife with abuse. Some would suggest doing away with the kafala for all the pain it causes. For many Asians, however, working under the kafala is the best economic opportunity available. As Agunias, a onetime Filipino migrant herself, pointed out, “It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that for many migrant workers, they’re leaving to better their lives.” But while on this path to a better life, laborers are systematically exploited and deceived; not just in the Gulf but also in their home countries, and at virtually every point in between.
Image source: Flickr/daly3d abd, Wikimedia/Chuck Hagel
Update (5/21/15): This article has been updated from an earlier version.