European Journal of Law Reform

Article

The System of Kafala and the Rights of Migrant Workers in GCC Countries – With Specific Reference to Saudi Arabia

Keywords migrant workers rights, GCC, Saudi, Kafala system, labor
Authors Majed M. Alzahrani
Author's information

227551 Majed M. Alzahrani
LL.M, Indiana University, Robert H. McKinney School of Law. The author would like to thank Professor Frank Emmert for advice and guidance in the production of this article.
  • Abstract

      Under the Kafala system, which applies in all Arab countries, migrant workers must attain a work entry visa and residential permit, which is possible only if they are working for a domestic institution or corporation or a citizen of the respective country. Each and every employer is required, based on the Kafala system, to adopt all legal and economic responsibilities for all of the employer's workers during their contractual period. By giving wide-ranging powers and responsibilities unilaterally to employers, the Kafala system subjects workers to abysmal and exploitative working conditions, violence, and human rights abuses. Some of these problems have recently made headlines in the United States and in Europe in connection with the campus being built by New York University in Abu Dhabi. While NYU imposed a code of labor standards on its direct contractual partners, it claimed to have no means of controlling subcontractors. Nor did NYU try very hard, it seems, to verify compliance even by its direct contractual partners.
      Migrant workers make up at least 30 percent of the population of Saudi Arabia and 49 percent of Saudi Arabia's entire workforce. Employers control Saudi Arabia's Kafala system, in which migrant workers are the weakest link. Studies and international organizations report that foreigners employed in Saudi Arabia have returned home with many complaints. In 2006, Saudi Arabia re-examined all laws including its labor law. This re-examination resulted in abolishing some terms used in labor law, such as the kafala system, but the system remains as is. The new labor law includes many positive changes, but not enough according to the assessment of local and international scholars and observers. In this paper, I will reveal laws, practices and patterns that essentially cause the vulnerability of migrant workers, and I will suggest effective alternative strategies. This paper should contribute to our growing understanding of issues of concern for migrant workers in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries and help to develop specific and necessary legal and institutional responses.

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