By Mahmoud Ahmad
Dec 19, 2016
LAST week, in a surprising and welcoming move, Qatar abolished the Kafala (sponsorship) system and implemented new reforms to improve workers’ rights, according to the Ministry of Administrative Development Labour and Social Affair announcement. The new law, according to reports, replaces the Kafala system with a modernized, contract-based system that safeguards worker rights and increases job flexibility. The law, while abolishing the Kafala system, guarantees greater mobility, freedom and protection to Qatar’s more than 2.1 million salaried work-force.
This news was music to the ears of many and was truly a trailblazing effort by a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state. The move also shows that if it could be done in Qatar, it could be done here. And with a precedent set by Qatar, I call for the abolishment of the Kafala system that has brought nothing but bad reputation to our country because of the way many sponsors have used this system to oppress and exploit expat workers. All we need to do is to replicate and tweak the Qatar model to suit us, such that the law is equitable for the employers and employees alike.
As journalists, we have observed over the years the absolute control that the sponsors have held over their employees that have resulted in various ways of abuse of the labours. We have read and written about the diverse heart-rending stories of many of these workers who have to face or work under abysmal conditions while others bear the brunt of the sponsors’ chicanery of not paying their wages on time or be intransigent or use the law in such a way to break the will and patience of a worker courageous enough to take the sponsor to the labour court. We have met with many such abused expat workers and brought their plight to the notice of the authorities to get the sponsors to mend their ways. But the wheels of justice have always moved slowly.
Like I said before, the word ‘Kafeel’, or ‘Kafala’, had become a scary word for many expatriate workers. It has been synonymous with abuse, torture and virtual slavery in the minds of the workers until they land here to find out for themselves what the luck of the draw has provided them — a good or abusive sponsor. An expatriate working under an abusive sponsor is sentenced to a lifetime of misery as long as this worker is in the Kingdom and under the same sponsorship.
How many expatriate workers have left our country with sad memories because they had landed abusive sponsors, who did nothing but short-change them when it comes to salaries and overwork them when it comes to work. How many expatriate workers with bad ‘Kafeel’ experience have regretted the time they decided to come to Saudi Arabia for work and have cursed and rued the day they came here and stayed on after they returned or let me say here ‹freed› from their sponsor. How many expatriate workers with bad experience from an abusive Kafeel painted a sad and a very bad image about our country to people who wanted to come and work here.
We have to be honest with ourselves here, for many expatriate workers were exploited and faced great injustice from abusive sponsors. Although there is law against such abusive sponsors but it is not swift when it comes to punishment and definitely does not fall in favour of the expat worker when it comes to implementation. Often the expat worker faces constant delay from the sponsor in appearing in labour court and when a verdict is announced, the sponsor stalls in implementing it, forcing the expatriate workers to settle the case at a loss most of the time because they are too tired to continue the fight.
With the abolishing of the Kafala system, the relationship between the expatriate worker and business owners is sure to improve. Injustice and abuse would be easily spotted and dealt with. The expat worker will no more be at the mercy of the business owner. Workers will have the right to travel and work and change jobs according to the regulations, and of course at the same time the law would be guaranteeing the rights of business owners.
There are sponsors who did not hesitate to trash the country’s reputation by enslaving workers in the past. I do not know which rule and in which book that they found it legal to force a worker to work in any job under the conditions they set while providing them with a measly monthly income while these sponsors sit at home and rake in the profits.
In Islam such money earned is Haram (forbidden or proscribed by Islamic law) but these abusive sponsors did not care a whit how they got the money and were OK with it. I would also like to know which rule allowed the sponsors, in the past and maybe even now, to withhold the monthly salary of domestic help or drivers or intentionally delay payment of salaries to professional workers at their companies. Which logic and rule enabled sponsors to overwork their expat workers and that too without overtime payment most of the time? How was it permissible for such sponsors to threaten their expatriate workers with Huroob (escape or absent from work without the intention of your employer), by reporting them of escaping from work, when they actually did not? There are those who apply mental torture on workers by banning them from travelling and holding their passports. Yes there are good sponsors who treat their workers nicely, but what makes it to the media all the time are the bad examples and the rotten eggs.
I was really excited to see Qatar taking the lead in setting aside the Kafala system, and seeing this abolishment succeeding. What we need to do is to review their experience and see how best it can be implemented here. It may not erase the bad stories of the past but it will for sure put an end to any abuse in the future.
I conclude with a saying from our beloved Prophet (pbuh): “A Muslim is the brother of another Muslim. He should not wrong him nor surrender him to his enemy. Allah will take care of the needs of anyone who takes care of the needs of his brother. On the Day of Rising Allah will dispel the anxiety of anyone who dispels the anxiety of another Muslim. On the Day of Rising Allah will veil anyone who veils another Muslim.”