The kafala (sponsorship) system is unlikely to find mention in the higher middle-class drawing rooms of Indian metros. Many of the inhabitants therein would have just returned from their overseas sojourns in fancy Western destinations, having blown up a sizeable amount foreign exchange; a small price to escape the unforgiving Indian summer. Quite often, their bright offspring, having been robbed of their "rightful" opportunities in India due to the senseless reservation policy, will be studying abroad, paying hefty tuition fees and surviving on generous monthly remittances.
This tiny minority, the only beneficiary of neoliberal economic development, has free access to the global currency thanks to the change in foreign exchange allocation policy which once squirreled away every penny for productive investment purposes in the interest of creating growth, employment and income equity. A major portion of this foreign exchange (US$70 billion in 2015) is earned by millions of poor, ignorant but in-demand Indian workers toiling in harsh working conditions under slavery-like regulations. Their comfort and safety is nobody's concern. Just recently in Qatar, 11 migrant workers died in a fire that broke out in their housing facility. Twelve were hospitalized.
The Middle East is the world's largest market for migrant labour. Migrant workers form a majority of the population in all of the GCC states, except Saudi Arabia. In contemporary Qatar, foreign workers outnumber citizens more than nine to one. However, the appalling working conditions are no longer a secret, and were catapulted into the spotlight after 2010, when Qatar was granted the 2022 World Cup.
This is a story of poor working class people who exist only as statistics and a source of foreign exchange for our delusional government ...
The Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics (LSE) published a report, "Labour Migrant and Access to Justice in Contemporary Qatar" , in November 2015, delving comprehensively into the subject. It defines kafala, a system to recruit and manage migrant workers, in the following words:
"The kafala, also referred to as the sponsorship system, is the region-wide system for governing and regulating migration. Although the kafala has roots in both law and custom, in practice it consists of three basic features: it establishes that entry for the purposes of work requires a local sponsor; it establishes the sponsor's responsibility for the sponsored migrant's housing, employment conditions, and other benefits; and it establishes that the migrant's exit and the migrant's capacity to change employers is subject to the sponsor's permission."
It is as clear as daylight that this system makes the Qatari sponsor the "owner" of a poor, illiterate/semi-literate foreign soul from the time he sets foot in the country.
Journalist Nick Cohen in The Guardiandescribes the pathetic condition of thousands of young South Asian men in blue overalls undertaking backbreaking labour in the dust and heat of the Gulf. Horrendous stories of mistreatment proliferate in the country -- of men dropping dead on building sites, or committing suicide by running in front of cars to end their misery and to allow their families to collect a little insurance money because they haven't been paid. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has claimed that 4000 workers would have lost their lives before the first ball is kicked in Qatar 2022 world Cup. The same piece quotes the Indian ambassador stating that more than 700 Indian workers died in Qatar between 2010 and 2012.
It is as clear that this system makes the Qatari sponsor the "owner" of a poor, illiterate/semi-literate foreign soul from the time he sets foot in the country.
Reform in the kafala system seems like a distant dream. As Royal United Services Institute research fellow Michael Stephens, head of RUSI Qatar, says, "There's not enough willingness among business operators to change. People are doing very, very well out of the system." And why not, when you can enjoy the privileges of an 18th-century slavemaster amid 21st-century comforts?
Little wonder, then, that Qatar University's Social and Economic Survey Research Institute found from a sample of 2500 locals(Qataris) that 88% do not want the Kafala system removed (58% want it kept the same and 30% want it strengthened). It only shows the long way some societies have to go to internalize the modern values of humanitarianism, norms of democracy and human rights.
Where do we go from here? This is a story of poor working class people who exist only as statistics and a source of foreign exchange for our delusional government that's dreaming about superpower creds, membership of the Nuclear Supplier Group and the status of being a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. Their countrymen are so indifferent that they sneer at Gulf-bound dehati fellow travellers on overseas flights. Hopefully, some day, the process of reforms and democratization gets going in GCC Countries. In the meantime, let us all wait for Godot.