The Kafala System of Slave Labour in Saudi Arabia is Costing Lives
'They will exploit you like animals'
HYDERABAD: When Iliyaz Begum left for Saudi Arabia in 2016 to work as a khadama (housemaid), she never imagined that she would be returning home on a wheelchair. When her employer’s attempts to sexually harass her failed, she was pushed from the second floor of the building.
“It was the worst decision of my life. I thought I would earn well there, but not only I was treated like an animal, I was made a cripple for the rest of my life. Now I am unable to get any work,” she pauses to wipe her tears.
And warns, “Never trust these agents who promise you lofty jobs in the Middle East. Kafeels (sponsors) have ties with them and later they exploit you like animals.”
Many women like Iliyaz have been the victims of the kafala system in West Asian countries. Kafala is defined by the Human Trafficking Search Organisation as an employment framework in the Gulf states, as well as Lebanon and Jordan, requiring sponsorship from a national for migrant workers who want to live and work in the country.
The sponsor, either an individual or a company, possesses substantial control over the worker. Without their employer’s permission a worker cannot leave their job, change jobs or exit the country, and the sponsor is able to threaten a worker with deportation if they question the terms of the contract.
This system has created systematic abuse. It facilitates exploitative and slave labour.
Kafeels Are Targeting Women in Hyderabad
Hyderabad has in recent years emerged as an epicentre for these unscrupulous local agents and kafeels, who target women from the economically weaker sections of society and lure them into promising jobs.
Once they reach their destination their passport is confiscated by kafeels, and then begin the horrors of slavery.
“There was no escape. I was locked in the house and had to work all the time. I didn’t have proper food or sleep from the day I was employed there,” says Zanaib Begum while recalling her ordeal. “The only escape I saw was death.
“So one day I drank a bottle of phenyl. I started vomiting blood but my employers didn’t have mercy on me until my health worsened and I was taken to hospital. I was made to work in that awful condition.”
A lack of labour regulation and workers’ rights add to the problem. If a worker is lucky enough to escape her employer’s house and report abuse, she is accused of absconding or theft.
Nasreen Banu faced such a situation in Riyadh when she tried to run away and complain to police. Her employers accused her of theft and had her jailed for a few days. She was taken to Riyadh for a term of two years but her passport was confiscated by the kafeel, and she had to work even after the completion of the term.
“I pleaded to my employers to let me go but they never listened. Moreover, they didn’t pay me for my work there. They still owe me some 2,000 riyals.”
A Way Around the Visa Regime
Khadama visas were banned in India some ten years ago, when increasing cases of the trafficking and harassment of domestic workers came to light. These were be issued to women going to Gulf countries for domestic work. Often they would be taken to a different destination and then subjected to exploitation.
“The ban was imposed in hopes of reducing such cases, but the agents found a way out of it,” explains Amjed Ullah Khan, spokesperson of the Majlis Bachao Tehreek which has been working to rescue people stuck in Gulf countries.
“These agents give a 90-day visitor visa to these workers and give them a choice to return if unsatisfied with the work. If not, they tell them, their visit visa will be converted into a work visa.
“But dissatisfied workers rarely get the chance to return. Before the visa expires their passport is confiscated, and kafeels blackmail them with deportation as they have their passports. In such situations, workers are forced into ruthless slavery,” Khan adds.
Domestic Workers are the Least Protected
Migrant-Rights.org, an advocacy organisation based in the Gulf Cooperation Council has documented the ordeal faced by these workers in the absence of proper legal support. They find that in terms of the region’s laws, as well as the conditions under which they work, domestic workers are the most vulnerable.
Domestic workers are excluded from labour laws in all GCC countries, as well as Jordan and Lebanon. There are no legal limits on their working hours, no minimum wage, and none of the government-mandated benefits that other workers enjoy. Moreover, domestic workers have little or no access to government labour ministries, dispute resolution mechanisms or labour courts.
Government labour inspectors do not monitor their conditions. And many of the kafala reforms instituted in recent years, in particular the ability to change jobs without the employer’s consent, exclude domestic workers.
This means that while workers covered by the labour law can change jobs if they are able to establish employer abuse, domestic workers have no straightforward legal route to change sponsors even when the sponsors subject them to physical or sexual violence.
Months or years go by without payment, and the severity of the abuse often increases. In many cases their only option is to pursue a court case – a lengthy and costly process that many do not pursue.
Ameena Begum was among the lucky workers who could be rescued from Kuwait. “We workers were not given proper food and were asked to take coffee and keep ourselves awake all the time to serve them.”
But not everyone is as lucky as Ameena. Rabia Begum went to Oman in 2015 to work as a khadama. After her employers started harassing her she ran away from the house. Her family is still waiting for her return.
Modern Day Slavery
A sum of around 3 lakh rupees is invested into making arrangements for these women to travel to these countries including the visa. In some cases, these housemaids are not paid any salary at all because their employers ‘buy’ them for 3 lakhs.
With no right to leave the country without the kafeel’s agreement, they end up in a form of slavery reminiscent of that practised in the 17th and 18th centuries.
When the local agents are unable to lure women for domestic work, they promise them false jobs or a hajj opportunity later to traffic them to kafeels.
Zakiya Mirza was a bright college student who couldn’t be fooled by these agents. But her poverty was the weak point through which agents lured her. They promised her a job as a tuition teacher with a good salary in Kuwait.
It was only after reaching the country that she realised she had been cheated. She was forced to work as a khadama.
However, Mirza got the chance to escape and went directly to the Indian Embassy in Kuwait. “I have heard about cases of khadama and exploitation. If only I knew what was written on those documents in Arabic, I would never have let her go,” says her mother who is anxious for her return.
In a similar case of jobs fraud, Haleem Uneesa of Vattepally in Hyderabad was promised work as a beautician but trafficked instead to Kuwait: she ended up in a house to work as a khadama.
When her mother heard this news, she went into shock.
“Ammi (mom) is mentally disturbed after the incident. She believes my sister is married to a sheikh and is living there happily. She denies the reality of her suffering,” says her brother while avoiding eye contact with his mother.
Police Complicity and Threats
Such fake beautician job offers have been on the rise in the recent years. Malan Begum, 21 is currently trapped in a similar situation in Kuwait. “Every time she calls us, she is crying. I pray every morning for her safe return. We reported a case against the agents for false promises but they threatened to kill us.
“Even the police is doing nothing to help us. The police inspector of Kanjenbaag has taken a bribe from the agents,” says her father.
Due to the threats given by these agents, many cases go unreported or are withdrawn. In one such instance, Rukayia (name changed) took back her complaint and refused to elaborate. “I am happy enough that I am back. I don’t want to punish the culprits. Let me live a peaceful life.”
Suicide Attempts Increasing
Many women from Asian countries have become victims of the kafala system. Cases of suicide attempts by domestic workers have been on the rise.
Medium reported the case of a domestic worker: “In March 2018 the case of Lensa Lelisa attracted widespread attention on Facebook. The domestic worker had jumped from her employer’s balcony but survived. From hospital, Lelisa testified in a video that the family beat her, and gave detailed descriptions of horrific abuse.
“The employer family said she was lying. After a police investigation – which provided Lelisa no guarantees of safety – the 20-year-old Ethiopian retracted her statement, and the case was dropped. She was returned to her employer’s home and has not been heard from since.”
Corpses Are Being Returned to Families
Many victims of the system fear to raise their voice which is one of the reasons the system continues to exploit. Another reason is the lack of awareness and education among women who decide to be a part of the system, despite being aware of past cases.
Some of the victims are rescued with the intervention of the Indian Embassy. In some cases, only their dead body returns.
Asima Khatoon, 21, went to Riyadh to work as khadama, but after facing torture she wanted to return. Her mother requested the help of the recruiting agent to bring her back to India.
She never came back, only her corpse. Her employers and hospital authorities claimed that she died of tuberculosis.
But her mother differs. “When her body came to Hyderabad, I noticed marks of torture all over her body. I know they had beaten her to death. All I want is justice for my daughter. I had to sell my house to bring her corpse back. I will not settle until I get justice,” her mother weeps.
Urgent Reforms Required
The problem needs to be addressed among the community that is being targeted the most. When Amjed Ullah Khan started working for the rescue of kafala victims and asked people to pay attention to “this increasing cancer of society”, he received a backlash for “defaming the state”.
“I want people to first acknowledge this as a big issue. People themselves are responsible for digging the hole into which they fall later. Also, police must keep a check on these agents after they receive bail,” says Khan.
The participating countries in the Gulf need to reform the restrictive kafala system, which gives employers inordinate power. They must bring their labour laws in line with the protections outlined in the International Labour Organisation’s Domestic Workers’ Convention.
The Indian government must act to end police or political complicity with the host countries and with kafeels. Together with NGOs it should make efforts to raise awareness about the system among the poorer sections, warn them, and educate them about their options for recourse.