Sunday essay: The slave societies of the Persian Gulf

The glittering city-states of the Persian Gulf are built on modern slavery. Behind the gleaming skyscrapers, the world-class air-conditioned malls, the luxury tourist attractions and the opulent villas lie racism, misery, sexual abuse, violent exploitation, even death.

According to recent reports from Al Jazeera and the Middle East Eye online news portal, employers frequently use the kafala system to force workers to endure abuse. If workers reject employers’ demands, the employer can accuse them of vague crimes or breach of contract. Being out of compliance can result in deportation without pay, a significant fine or a prison sentence. The kafala system effectively doesn’t allow workers to dispute non-performance of the employment contract or lodge any serious complaint against their employers. The system thus places a worker at the total mercy of his or her employer. The kafala regulations bind the worker to the employer in the same way that slaves are bound to their owners. Employers of migrant labourers in the Persian Gulf under the kafala system are therefore, effectively, slaveholders.

It should be noted that, as this article goes to press, the Saudi Arabian government has determined that it will bring significant reforms to its kafala labour-regulation system, beginning in 2021. The Saudis claim it’s an abolition of the system. Labour activists assert that, while it’s a significant step, it isn’t an abolition, and that potentials for continued systemic abuse remain. Other Persian Gulf governments are also beginning to enact badly needed reforms in the kafala labour-regulation system. These reforms are clearly not an abolition of the system and time will tell what effect they have.

English | February 7, 2021



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