Overcoming the Gulf’s Sponsorship Program: Workers and Unions Struggle to Find Solution to Growing Problem

By the time Kamal approached the offices of the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF), he had exhausted all other options to resolve an ongoing dispute with his employer. Calling Kuwait home for the past six years, the Indian national who has long worked in management for a restaurant chain decided to seek a new job.

He was well aware of the rules surrounding Kuwait’s employer sponsorship program and provided the required three-month notice when he applied for a release from his contract. Although he believed the relationship with his employer was strong, especially after so many years, he quickly discovered they were unwilling to grant him his request. In fact, they had yet to even acknowledge it. By the time he sat down to speak with representatives from the ITUC his case had already entered the court system.

“The KTUF has been God’s gift to us,” he said of the union’s assistance for himself and another colleague, both of whom are caught in the system.

Despite Kamal’s struggles, because of his education and skilled position he can be considered among the fortunate who not only receive assistance from the union but who know how and where to seek it. It was through his own online research on Indian ex-pat chat-rooms where he learned of the KTUF. For the vast majority of foreign workers, the sponsorship system exposes them to exploitation from which there is no escape.

Every year thousands of migrant workers descend on the Arabian Gulf, work permits in-hand, ready to realise opportunities to make money that they would never receive at home. All jobs and work permits are pre-arranged in their home countries through recruitment agencies – a requirement of destination countries that serves to prevent people from arriving in search of work. In what is known as the Kafala, or sponsorship system, workers must be sponsored by an employer in order to enter the GCC countries. However, what may appear to governments and private sectors as a logical method of preventing undocumented migrants from overwhelming countries in search of jobs, is instead working against the foreign army of workers once they settle in their new, temporary home.

Little do workers know that simply leaving one job to pursue another can be filled with frustration, employer abuse of power, and in some cases even leads to jail sentences.

The situation is even worse for domestic workers who find themselves confined within the home without access to their passports, withheld by the people they work for. Cases of employer abuse and control are seldom heard from the women who have no opportunity to flee. Those who do run away and do not find shelter are left without any legal status and are reportedly exploited into prostitution, or are sold into other homes by brokers.

From Kuwait, to Bahrain, and the Emirates, the Kafala System is used throughout the Arab Gulf states. Despite efforts by local trade unions, sponsorship and the rules surrounding it remain the only method migrants have if they want to arrive in the region for work.

Sponsored labour

Migrant workers commonly enter the Gulf on two-year contracts secured with their sponsor employer. Although legislation among countries in the region differs – with some without any legislation at all – most states require workers to give three months’ notice in the event that they wish to be released from their contract, usually with the intention of pursuing a new job with another employer. A letter of resignation is all that is officially required to obtain a release, but for many workers that is not the case.

Trade union representatives in the Gulf talk of workers requests being denied or simply ignored. And as previously mentioned some employees end up in jail after submitting their requests due to false claims made by the employer to the police in retaliation. Unless workers first seek help from authorities, they stand no chance in fighting the legal system without the rights of citizens.

The sponsorship system is made yet more difficult, as it remains common for employers to retain workers’ passports – despite laws in place condemning the practice – thus removing both their freedom and their leverage to negotiate. Even with the proper paperwork, workers are unable to leave their employer without becoming undocumented and being subjected to detention, and finally deportation.

Trade unions face uphill battle

The General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) wants to put an end to what it sees as a system that is robbing workers of their rights, and more specifically their freedom of movement.

Karim Yousuf Radhi, GFBTU Assistant Secretary General for Private Sector, says that in 2006 an agreement was in place to abolish the sponsorship system and create a law that would have seen the government oversee all foreign workers.

“According to the law there was one article, article 25, which gave migrant workers the freedom to mobilise and to move from one job to another without any permission from the employer or any limitation,” he said. “Of course, we were very supportive. We and the government were together in supporting this, and the employers were against it.”

However, increased pressure from the private sector, a change in government, and last year’s uprising has seen the Bahraini government reverse its decision, instead making it even more difficult for workers to change employers. Radhi says that workers are now required to work at least one year under one employer before submitting their request.

“The employers went to the prime minister and said the right to change employers is not good for the economy and that it favours the trade unions that are part of a conspiracy,” he recalled. “Only a very small percentage of workers apply to change jobs, so the employers were exaggerating the extent of the issue and how it would affect the economy.”

When the government’s reversal was challenged by the GFBTU, their calls were not only rejected, but the government and employers responded by implementing the former three- month prior notice in addition to the one-year requirement. Under the current system, Rhadi says workers are all but prevented from moving due to their two-year contracts, making a change inconvenient for both workers and employers.

Legal limbo

In Kuwait, where the Kafala system has no legal basis, the KTUF also wants to see the system of sponsorships abolished. Similar to Bahrain, the KTUF would like the government to take responsibility for foreign workers, removing the power and control from employers.

“We are pushing the government to enforce changes that will see the government itself become responsible for each and every person who comes to Kuwait,” said KTUF secretary general Abdul Rahman Yousef Al-Ghanim. “We have a lot of work to be done to make this happen, but the government has previously promised to end the sponsorship program.”

It was in 2008 when the government first announced it would do away with the system, but those promises to end sponsorships have been a series of stops and starts with no end in sight, leaving many in the trade union sector to doubt the government’s commitment to implement changes. “We are now told that the government has a vision to alter the system, but we know none of the details.”

Al-Ghanim continued saying, “The problem of the sponsorship program has blocked everything else we are working to achieve, such as wage increases. If we can destroy the system of sponsorships, then workers will be free to find new and better jobs with higher rates of pay,” stressing that allowing workers to freely seek other employment will create competition for wages and improve the overall situation among workers and employers. “Everyone will want skilled workers,” he said.

Without sponsorships Al-Ghanim claims that the economy will benefit from an increase in competition between companies that are in need of skilled workers; and workers will in turn become competitive among themselves to be the best in their fields.
According to Al-Ghanim, “The majority of problems affecting workers here in Kuwait are created by the sponsorship system, so by removing it will create many positive changes.”

One case at a time

Until fundamental changes are made to the way workers are permitted to work in the GCC, trade unions will be left to continue working on one case at a time. Fortunately, in Kamal’s case he can rest assured that he will not be abruptly fired, deported, or face obscure police charges. His decision and ability to seek help from the KTUF and the submission of his case to the labour office protects him from any further action on the part of his current employer. But despite union support, the worry remains. “The risk that you’ll be deported is still in my mind,” he said, acknowledging that the company is holding his passport, limiting his options. All that Kamal can do is to wait for his case to be resolved, while countless other workers wait for change in a system designed to exploit them.