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Change the kafala system!

Khaled Almaeena

I have been reading about changes in the labor laws and kafala (sponsorship) system in Qatar. 

I have been involved with sponsors for the last 28 years. But don’t get me wrong – I do not work in the Ministry of Labor or own a recruiting company.

I was for 25 years the editor of the Arab News and for two years the Saudi Gazette, both English language Saudi newspapers.They were the eyes and ears of both Saudis and expatriates, probably more so of the latter. To them, we were a helpline. They wrote to us for advice, assistance, inquiries and support. Most of the letters dealt with working conditions, the breaking of contracts, unfair dismissals and unjust accusations. The companies ranged from those at the top on down.

While some companies may have had a good track record, the dark side emerged in the actions of some HR employees. There was no recourse to legal aid, so expatriate workers wrote to us. And most of them stressed that the kafala system needed to be reviewed. “It is worse than slavery,” said one poor Asian. “We are owned by the sponsor. We cannot move, travel or do anything except at his will and are victims of his swinging moods.”

Others wrote: “In some cases, the kafeel (sponsor) takes us to other places to work and we dare not object.” Housemaids wrote: “On holidays, we are transported to their relatives house to toil all day. We are observed very carefully.” These remarks filled my postbox and later my e-mail account in both newspapers.

One Indian doctor tearfully reported how he had not been allowed to travel for four years by his sponsor. “He just took my iqama (residence permit) and I had to live like a fugitive. I missed my son’s wedding in America; my aunt died and I could not attend her funeral. The kafeel stole four years of my life,” he said bitterly.

I truly believe that no man should have the right to own anyone else. The kafala system is slavery and ownership.

What makes it worse is that when the kafeel dies those under his sponsorship are “inherited” by members of his family. The new kafeel may not be as kind and caring as the old one.

A new modus operandi of unscrupulous sponsors is to declare their employees “huroub” by falsely asserting to the authorities that they have run away.
They do that to avoid paying their employees end-of-service benefits and buying them air tickets.

I know of one case where a poor longtime expatriate is languishing in Al-Shumaisi deportation center because his sponsor has declared him to be huroub. He has been there for 45 days now. A diabetic and in need of medicine, he is in bad shape. I am trying my best to get him out. I have written letters, made phone calls and even requested to meet the sponsor, but to no avail. Can you imagine after living in the Kingdom for 35 years, finding yourself in a deportation center?

The Minister of Labor has launched many new initiatives and procedures so that expatriate workers will not suffer. And some ministry officials have been more than helpful. They are going out of their way to support these helpless individuals. But more needs to be done. And foremost, there is an urgent need to review and change the kafala system.

“The government should be our sponsor and we are more than willing to pay the amount we are forced to give the kafeel every year. The Ministry of Labor must look into this,” said an expatriate.

In the meantime, there is a diabetic expatriate languishing in Al-Shumaisi! Who can help?

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