Camera pressed closely to her face, her voice is but a whisper as she sobs frantically. “I’m in Saudi Arabia right now. If I’m caught with a phone, they’ll take it. Save me, fellow Kenyans.”
The nameless woman in a BBC documentary is one of the 2.8 million women employed as maids in the Middle East under the kafala system. Thousands of these workers have reported violence, sexual abuse, and cruelty as they are often treated as little more than overworked and underpaid slaves.
Kafala, which means “to guarantee” or “to take care of”, is a migration sponsorship system that exists in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, and also in the Arab states of Jordan and Lebanon. It, however, is designed in a way that allows the employer to dictate and control the lives of their domestic workers. The women can become victims of exploitation, abuse, and blackmail; many of them will have their passports confiscated upon arrival. It is an unsavoury situation where there is little escape for the women who face many perils and dangers.
Also featured was Mary Mbela, a Kenyan maid who was horrifically burnt in a fire in the home of her employers in Jordan. A forlorn relative held up a photo, which showed the mess of missing skin and bloody flesh that plastered most of Mary’s body.
After the accident, Mary remained in Jordan for over a month; her employers nor the recruitment agencies told her family of the incident. Her loved ones would come to know of Mary’s gruesome injuries when she was on the plane en route home.
A month later, Mary died of her injuries. Her relatives never received any compensation.
The irony is that the kafala system is more of a custom than a law, which has seemingly held precedence over labour laws. Amnesty International described it as “an inherently abusive migration sponsorship system, which increases their risk of suffering labour exploitation, forced labour, and trafficking and leaves them [migrants] with little prospect of obtaining redress.”
In a report, the organisation interviewed 32 women migrant domestic workers in 2018-2019 who worked in Lebanon. Their testimonies revealed significant and consistent patterns of abuse.
Amnesty accused the Lebanese authorities of taking limited and, so far, flawed measures to address the alleged abuses. In 2015, the Ministry of Labour established a hotline for migrant domestic workers to report cases of abuse, but Amnesty called into question its effectiveness. In December 2018, the Ministry of Labour said it had translated the unified standard contract for domestic workers into several unspecified languages, but workers are still signing contracts in Arabic without understanding their content. As such, Amnesty believed that authorities failed to address the permissive environment for exploitation and other abuse.
In order to be legible, the workers must have a kafeel or sponsor, who is also the employer. Once the necessary visa is obtained, the migrant can then travel to their country of employment and will be met at the airport by their kafeel. Generally speaking, if the kafeel does not meet them, they may not be permitted into the country.
The kafeel is responsible for all visa renewals for the hired help, who will remain tied there for the duration of her stay. She is only allowed to change jobs if she gets a letter from her employer that grants her to do so. It is also the same if she wishes to terminate her employment. Should she leave without the kafeel’s consent, she faces losing her migration status, detention, or even deportation.
Despite the horror stories, hoards of women from Kenya and Ghana still flock to recruitment agencies to sign up in pursuit of the dream for a better life.
In 2012, Kenya banned females from travelling to the Middle East as domestic workers. Yet, in more recent times, the ban was lifted after new deals were signed with Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Jordan.
Furthermore, it is not only women who become victims in the kafala system. In Qatar alone, there are over two million migrant workers in slave-like conditions according to human rights organisations. With the Arab state set to host Fifa’s 2022 World Cup, the country has gone into overdrive with construction and preparation, thereby recruiting even more foreigners.
“Almost a year ago, Qatar passed a law providing legal protections for domestic workers’ rights for the first time,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Qatar should now address the gaps in the domestic workers’ law, and make sure that it is enforced.”
“Excessive working hours is one of the most common labor complaints by migrant domestic workers, especially because they live in their workplace,” she added. “Specific and strong protections to prevent overwork are particularly important for domestic workers.”
In 2012, 520 workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, and India died in Qatar. To date, 375 of those deaths to date are still unexplained.