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There they are, a whole bunch of human beings. After a long shift and hours of protest, they are exhausted. They are waiting for a decision from the Arab monarchy that can change their lives and remove the modern chains of slavery – which is not made of chains, but of bureaucracy. They come from all over the world, especially Asia and Africa. Everyone in the orange jacket, cheerfully applauding. They are not fans of a football game. It was the slaves of the Kafala who learned in Doha that the law had been reformed. About 18 million of these official immigrants live in the countries of the Persian Gulf, out of a total population of 42 million. They welcome the reforms granted by the absolute monarchies of the Arab countries.
Kafala has a double meaning: on the one hand, it means “guarantee” (daman), and it is a guarantee for the granting of a loan. On the other hand, it means “attention” (kafl) and indicates the behavior to adopt in front of a non-independent or autonomous person such as (for example) a minor. The term dates back to Islamic jurisprudence for the protection of orphans. But that was a thing of the past. Today, this word has been “reformed” in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar) to regulate the treatment of foreign workers – first in the treatment pearls, then gradually throughout the industrial system.
We Westerners must have learned the word Kafala on the occasion of the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, not yet played and already overwhelmed by numerous scandals, not only because of suspicion of corruption, but especially after the discovery. very serious human rights violations in the construction of stadiums: thousands and thousands of workers from different countries work there and die and are exhausted by the inhuman conditions in which they have to live.
Humanitarian organizations, sports celebrities, governments and political figures have risen up against the Qatari Kafala, so much so that the same government in Doha, in the person of Sheikh Al Thani, and the King of Saudi Arabia were forced to openly oppose Kafala Take sides and migrate two million migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Oman, other Persian Gulf countries, Turkey, Iran, Syria , Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Somalia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan (to name a few) Promise a list of reforms to restore minimum rights and human dignity.
Qatar has once again proven to be the most flexible and politically advanced Arab state, as Doha officials know full well that there will also be a huge need for workers in the future, motivated by the infrastructure investments planned by Qatar before, after the next World Cup in 2022 which require a continuous and specialized workforce from abroad. So no more slaves, but workers and artisans.
The Kafala reform also includes the expected reform of the minimum wage, which was introduced for the first time by a Gulf state: it guarantees everyone a minimum monthly wage of QAR 1,000 (Qatari riyal, approx. 229 euros) as well as a minimum monthly salary of 300 QAR (69 euros) for food and 500 QAR (114 euros) for accommodation, unless both are provided by the same employer. For us Westerners, these conditions are still unacceptable.
This is a great victory for the humanitarian, trade union, political and cultural organizations which have been fighting for a guarantee for years and seeking in vain for political support in the countries of origin of the victims of these abuses. The governments of these countries have done well in the past: the remittances sent, although small, provide relief to households in African and Asian countries. According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), there are actually more than two million migrant slaves in the Middle East, and for this crowd, any conquest is better than nothing.
History and phenomenology of the Kafala
The Covid-19 has made the situation worse. In fact, anyone who gets sick has to leave the country
Kafala consolidated between 1950 and 1970 after the discovery of oil. Countries that used to be in poverty are getting very rich and need more and more unskilled labor who, in addition to working on the oil wells, had to build a new nation from scratch that is now sailing. in luxury. The natives of Arab countries do not exercise these trades, they are employed in public administration and private management, and immigrants have to do everything else.
Although each country has its own laws, the kafala system is similar across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) area: a foreign worker needs a kafeel (sponsor) to immigrate, and these sponsors have agencies all over the world and ensure that the flow of work is controlled. The rules of the game are strict. The contracts are in Arabic, so very few immigrants understand them.
Anyone who accepts employment in the Gulf States will have their passport withdrawn; he is prohibited from changing jobs without the employer’s agreement; if his passport is returned to him, he must leave the country, otherwise he will become an illegal immigrant and risk imprisonment; he must accept a job without weekly rest with a meager salary often withheld by the employer. Many sign without understanding and cannot return home after arriving.
The inability of monarchies to accept the humanity of workers
Saudi police arrest immigrants protesting so they can quit their jobs and return home
This inhuman treatment is the basis of the social contract which allows monarchies to continue to exist. Immigrants must pay for an oil-focused charity that guarantees citizens a luxurious life in return for joining the monarchy. So if there is an oil price crisis, it will be dumped on the kafala with cuts in wages, food, water. In the United Arab Emirates, the country where slavery is the most extreme, only 11% of the 10 million inhabitants are of origin, while 60% come from various Asian countries – whether they are Muslims or not, all are condemned to the kafala.
Of course, with each economic crisis there is a corresponding worsening of the human conditions of kafala workers. According to the Business & Human Rights Resource Center, an institute that analyzes complaints against Gulf-based companies, the number of foreign workers claiming insufficient access to food has increased by 250% since the start of the pandemic. According to some reports, since the pandemic has also led to an economic crisis, the Saudi authorities are developing a system of cover for workers who have not received their wages and are introducing more controls through workplace inspections.
However, to benefit from the new changes, the foreign worker must meet certain conditions, including having worked for the same employer for at least twelve months after entering Saudi Arabia. In addition, the new rules only apply to people registered on certain online platforms. However, certain professions are excluded: private drivers, bodyguards, household helpers, cattle breeders and gardeners.
United Nations organizations, migrant rights non-governmental organizations and civil society associations have welcomed reforms in Qatar – as announced on August 30, 2020 by the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor and Affairs social policies published in the Official Journal (September 8, 2020) – reforms that have significantly changed the legal framework that governs the working and living conditions of migrant workers in the country.
In this context, the Qatari authorities abolished the so-called “certificate of no objection” (NOC) clause, which required workers to obtain their employer’s consent to change jobs, and introduced a minimum wage for all workers. types of work and all nationalities of workers. The new changes are not only a major innovation in the Qatari working structure, but are also a major regional success. Indeed, Qatar is on the one hand the first Gulf country to abolish the NOC clause and on the other hand it is the second country after Kuwait to agree on a minimum wage for migrant workers.
Ivorian women sold to Lebanese as servants and victims of rape and other acts of violence
Clearly, the pandemic has also worsened the situation in Qatar, especially for immigrants forced to live in overcrowded conditions, with almost no water and no medical assistance, while many companies have suspended payment of wages and placed their employees in labor camps or incarceration as closed the industrial zone, the city of Barwa or the city of labor of Doha. It is even worse in Lebanon, where immigrants are now paid in Lebanese pounds, which are devalued almost daily. Many have lost their jobs and don’t know how to get home and are living on the streets like beggars.
Obviously, international pressure is increasing under these conditions. While Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ignore these pressures, other Gulf states are concerned and have taken various measures to mitigate their worst effects. In Kuwait, for example, in 2018, the state granted an amnesty to all “irregular” foreigners who could have left the country without fear of fines and without being placed on the “blacklist” which would have compromised their chances of reuse in the gulf. Oman has announced that from 2021, workers will be able to change jobs without having to get permission from the sponsor.
Going further is almost impossible. The abolition of the kafala is to call into question the pillars of the economic boom. This means seeing workers as part of the population rather than as animal property: the Gulf states do not grant access to citizenship, even to very few people. For example: Sayed Ali Zakir Naqvi is a Pakistani entrepreneur who runs three companies and has lived in Qatar for over thirty years. He has invested large sums of money but, due to Kafala laws, remains just an employee under the auspices of a citizen of the emirate who is the majority shareholder. Qatari law states that a Qatari citizen must own at least 51% of the shares of any company registered in the country.
According to Mustafa Quadri of Equidem Research, the reluctance associated with canceling the kafala represents the social challenges that arise in the prospect of an oil and coal-free planet that will also have the paradigm of society among its secondary victims, on which the Gulf region writes its modern history. For this reason, an “ethical” way of dismantling the Kafala is not totally excluded. Many human rights activists and activists for the protection of foreign workers are young Arab citizens of the Gulf. It is realistic to assume that with the change of generations and the increasing networking of citizens with the rest of the world, the awareness of the fundamental rights of these workers will also be heightened.
Each Arab country has its own kafala
A hostel for guest workers in the United Arab Emirates
Today, as in other countries such as Qatar or Egypt, it is a human political issue pursued with great determination by Amnesty International: Lebanon also has around 250,000 migrant domestic workers, for the most part. Most women from Africa and Southeast Asia.
If we look to Saudi Arabia, the situation is perhaps even worse: so-called modern slavery does not protect the most vulnerable, and considering that nearly a third of the 34 million inhabitants of the Saudi Arabia are migrant workers, this is also a political issue: however, under pressure from international NGOs, migrants were free to move from one job to another without the employer’s consent and to leave the country. Kingdom if the employer has been informed. The same is true of Bahrain with 1.8 million inhabitants, 54% of whom are immigrants, all slaves of the Kafala.
The government finally committed to abolishing the employer’s obligation to leave the country, but the reform that was effectively passed left this central point aside. The reform was part of the 2020 package presented by the Ministry of Labor, Human Resources and Social Development called “LRI” and represents a first step, also supported by the recent joint protocol between Bahrain and the Philippine trade union movement and the recent meeting between President Rodrigo Duterte and His Majesty King Hamad Bing Isa Al Khalifa have been confirmed: after individual negotiations with the Indian government, the Indians finally obtained an exit permit.
Until the coup funded by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Egyptians were considered immigrants in all other states. It was only after Al-Sisi came to power that the law was changed, and now Egyptian workers are completely free from the constraints of the kafala. In Kuwait, the Philippines negotiated a similar deal: The Manila Embassy blocked hiring of workers in 2020 due to the death of a girl abused by her employer and then reopened it when new terms were agreed: Permission to use telephones during periods of rest, guarantee of adequate accommodation, medical treatment in the event of illness and regular salary payments without the employer having to confiscate valid identity documents.
Diplomatic pressure from Western states arose in the wake of complaints from NGOs and horrific stories in the international press about individual fates: like that of Lensa Lelisa, a 21-year-old Ethiopian domestic worker who jumped from a balcony of the employer’s house in Beirut. report the child rape that arrested the boss – a story made even worse by the Lebanese court acquitting the perpetrators; or like that of Salina, 22, who also escaped violence from her employer in Beirut; or like those of Syrian construction migrants who gathered in Beirut in inhumane conditions to build luxurious towers for the country’s rebirth. As we can see, Lebanon is one of the countries which, precisely because of its bankruptcy, most exert the cruelty of Kafala: women, men, children who live in basements in absurd conditions. hygienic and who often die of misery during months of work.
This is particularly serious for immigrants coming from Bangladesh: in 2019 alone, the Department of Expatriate Welfare in Dhaka found that around 50,000 women are forced to work more than 15 hours a day for a salary. about $ 250 a month to work alone. payable in the event of dismissal. Women workers who try to speak out against hardship, harassment and assault risk being arrested and even losing their lives, both from the smugglers who manage the flow of slaves and from their employers, especially in Saudi Arabia.
Ethiopian immigrants rescued by Human Rights Watch as they flee Saudi Arabia
Bengali NGO Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program analyzed data from many migrant workers of different ages who have survived abuse in the workplace and found numerous human rights violations: 61% of women have already been physically tortured by their recruiter; 86% said they returned home without receiving the agreed salary; 90% of the workers have never received a real employment contract or any reference on the rights of domestic work.
But that does not change anything: Bangladesh signed a bilateral agreement in 2015 to guarantee the posting of workers to Saudi Arabia, as workers’ wages are the second source of foreign currency income for Bangladesh despite poverty and lack of rights at work only. production in the garment industry is picking up.
On June 27, 2019, during the 41st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) highlighted the situation of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates and their vulnerability to their employers. It is family abuse, secret and hidden within the family, which makes it impossible to fight even if the government does decide to do so. It is even worse in the homes of rich Lebanese, where around 250,000 migrants live, almost all African women (mainly from Ethiopia) who are employed as housekeepers, family helpers and babysitters: no one protects them.
Our bad conscience
Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi receives Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Florence, who will then invite Renzi to several well-paid conferences in the United Arab Emirates
If reading this makes you angry, you are right. But as you know, our rulers often compete for who is the executioners’ best friend: because the countries of the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, invest hundreds of billions in the countries of the European Union. Those who do not accept this risk, as the Italian example shows, immediate reprisals: in recent years, the personal friendship between Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, UAE Defense Minister Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Prince Saudi heir Mohammed Bin Salman had rich contracts for Italian companies, sports sponsorship and well-paid invitations to conferences in the Persian Gulf guaranteed. When the new government, led by Mario Draghi, decided to halt arms deliveries for the genocide in Yemen, the UAE closed the airspace to Italian planes – an extreme diplomatic move, comparable to the harbinger of a declaration of war.
What our policies and businesses need to understand is that the racism of the Arabs in the Persian Gulf, who regard immigrant workers as beasts, applies to the Western population as well. As long as we can defend ourselves technically, militarily and diplomatically, this can continue. The Arabs need our markets. But watch out for a day when the balance of power should change, or when oil becomes completely irrelevant for the ecological salvation of the planet. Everything can then be expected.
 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/sports/fifa-teixeira-qatar-2022-bribes.html ; https://www.rte.ie/sport/soccer/international/2013/0724/464396-qatar-world-cup-a-mistake-fifa-executive/ ; https://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/may/16/sepp-blatter-qatar-2022-world-cup-mistake
 https://www.huffingtonpost.it/2017/10/26/il-qatar-vuole-eliminare-la-kafala-la-moderna-forma-di-schiavitu-che-ha-causato-la-morte-di-migliaia-di-lavoratori-migranti_a_23256556/ ; https://sport.sky.it/calcio/2013/09/26/scandalo_mondiali_qatar_2022_operai_nepalesi_senza_paga_e_acqua
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 https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/static/855584b2f42e4017f0c641811154d3af/AE-summary.pdf ; https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/07/07/uae-s-kafala-system-harmless-or-human-trafficking-pub-82188
 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-17/why-labor-rules-are-such-a-big-issue-in-persian-gulf-quicktake-kf6u0xl0 ; https://thisislebanon.news/categories/case-of-kafala-abuse/bpage/2/ ; http://www.fides.org/it/news/65951-ASIA_LIBANO_La_kafala_strumento_di_oppressione_per_le_donne_africane_immigrate
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 https://www.firenzepost.it/2015/10/06/firenze-matteo-renzi-accoglie-in-palazzo-vecchio-il-principe-arabo-mohammed-bin-zayed-al-nahyan/ ; https://www.ilpost.it/2021/01/28/renzi-arabia-saudita-video/