Runaways and Absconders; Slavery and Kafala: A dig into history
The kafala or sponsorship system in Qatar, and the Gulf has been receiving plenty of attention in international media, primarily owing to Qatar’s successful bid for the World Cup in 2022. This heavily criticised system of residency and employment for foreigners or non-citizens is what allows me to legally reside in Qatar. Is the system inherently bad, or do people who exploit the system for personal gain, giving it and the country a bad name?
Elizabeth Frantz in her work conducted an analysis of the Arabic root of the word kafala, which means to feed, support, vouch for or warrant. The kafeel or sponsor, is the ‘one who is responsible, answerable, amenable’ and ensures that he takes care of everyone he sponsors. Taking a closer look at this complex system and its historical origins, I found myself going through the Ottoman Empire’s laws that dictated how slaves were to be treated. One of their main sources of law was the Hanafi School of Islamic law, as described by Ehud R. Toledano in his book As if Silent and Absent: Bonds of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East: Chapter: Leaving a Violated Bond.
“Accordingly, runaway slaves had to be pursued and, if captured, returned to their holders. Only ill-treatment, usually entailing severe physical abuse, evidence for which had to be sustained in court, could form the basis for a court-imposed, involuntary manumission of an enslaved person. That procedure could also be resorted to by slaves not within the context of absconding, although captured runaway slaves often charged ill-treatment to mitigate their predicament in the hope of inducing the court to set them free.”
I found this striking, as it made me think of the language contained in press releases about workers that come out in Qatar. If I had used the word ‘slave’ with ‘worker’ interchangeably in the paragraph above, it paints a picture that is reminiscent of conditions faced by low-income workers who are frequently described as ‘runaways’ and ‘absconders’. A recent press release from the Ministry of Interior’s Search and Follow-up department states:
“…the Department stresses to intensify inspection campaigns during the coming period and will take legal action against the violating workers as well against those who employ these workers in violation of the law…the SFD herewith urges all citizens and expats to stay away strictly from dealing with absconding and runaway workers and from employing them in any way.”
The Search and Follow-up department of the Ministry of Interior handles cases of workers and is also responsible for the searching for ‘absconding’ and ‘runaway workers’. These workers are categorised as illegal, and have committed a crime by leaving their sponsor without their permission. While these two comparisons are interesting, there are differences between slavery and the Kafala system as we know it. As Qatar-based sociologist Dr Ray Jureidini rightly points out, the term ‘runaway worker’ is evocative of the runaway slaves that were prominent during the slavery era of the United States. “Why isn’t it that a worker chose to leave his/her employer – that he resigned? Why does he or she become a ‘runaway’, especially in cases where workers leave the employer because of abuse?” Dr. Ray asks.
When oil and gas began to be discovered in many parts of the Khaleej in the early 20th century, a need arose to bring in more workers to extract this wealth. With a massive influx of workers in a short period of time, there was a need to ensure that these new foreigners were effectively managed. What arose, as Dr Juredini said in his presentation at the World Social Forum on Migration in Manila last year, was ‘a system of migration wherein you have an individual employer or kafeel who decides who comes into the country, and who leaves the country. This is something that is usually delegated to a state or country. It gives rise to a regulatory system where individuals can now make decisions rather than the state. The sponsor has to sign off on the exit permit, that can allow or prevent people from leaving the country.’ Often, it is implied that only Qatari citizens can act as sponsors, which is not true as domestic workers (male and female) can have a kafeel of a different nationality, and many employees are sponsored under a corporate entity rather than an individual. Often company sponsors have mandoobs or representatives (who can be of different nationalities) who are legally authorised to grant exit permits and other responsibilities.
So, is the kafala system inherently bad? Let us not forget that there are plenty of kafeels who conduct their work honorably. Much of the existing international criticism of the kafala deal with those sponsors who exploit the workers, refuse to pay them on time and prevent them from leaving the country. The way the current system is set up, allows it to be easily exploited in this manner, and it appears to take a kafeel of high ethics and good moral sense to be a good one. It is also extremely challenging to switch employers, owing to the requirement of a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from your current employer. If you are not given an NOC, there is an automatic two-year ban on reentering Qatar and seeking employment elsewhere. Qatar’s Prime Minster and Foreign Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani had in 2010 stated that the government is ‘studying the sponsorship issue very carefully to preserve the rights of citizens and foreign workers.’ While this sounds promising, I hope that there will be a good outcome from this soon. Slavery was officially abolished in Qatar in 1952 by the Emir, Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani who explained that slavery was ‘forbidden in all civilised countries’ and it was ‘contrary to the principles of human dignity and social justice,’ as researched by Clarence-Smith’s work on the abolition of slavery in Islam and the Middle East. While slavery may have gone away, much work remains to be done 61 years later to uphold those values of human dignity and social justice in the current kafala system.
(The above article is part of a series of articles that aims to raise awareness about issues of social justice, particularly that of migrant workers, and hopes to encourage readers to get involved in addressing them.)