The ‘kafala’ system: A headache for migrant workers

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Atty. Dodo Dulay

Atty. Dodo Dulay

SINCE the amnesty program of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began in March 2017, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) have brought home more than 8,000 illegal and overstaying overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

A majority of these repatriated workers had overstayed their visas for a few years but a handful of the more enterprising OFWs had managed to evade detection and arrest for as long as 18 years, which is quite a feat in itself. Most of them became illegal expatriates or overstayed their visas because their iqama (or residence permits) expired or they obtained a work permit but did not have an iqama ID or they had run away (or absconded) from their employers and were declared “huroob” (or absent from work).

Many of these problems faced by our OFWs can be traced to the “kafala,” or sponsorship system practiced in the Middle East countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. The kafala system requires all migrant workers to have a sponsor in the country where he or she is to work in order that a valid visa and residence permit may be issued.

The rationale often given for the imposition of kafala is that it limits the likelihood of the expatriate workers leaving their employers before they have completed their contract term. However, this system has, for the most part, been subject to abuse.


Under the kafala, the Arab sponsor-employer has complete control over the mobility of the migrant worker. An OFW, for instance, cannot quit work or transfer jobs without first obtaining the consent of his or her employer. A migrant worker also cannot leave Saudi Arabia without first receiving an “exit visa” from the Arab sponsor. This practically places the migrant worker at the mercy of his or her employer.

Many of the OFWs we’ve repatriated complain about being made to work long hours without overtime pay, or not being given days off. In some cases, workers are made to do additional work, often outside of the coverage of the contractual agreements. There are also cases where our OFWs (especially domestic workers) are “loaned” out to others and asked to do household work that they are also oftentimes not paid for.

Not a few are given less than the agreed salary, and many do not get paid on time. It is no longer unusual to hear of our OFWs working as domestics being cut off from the outside world, prohibited them from leaving the house or calling home.

If the aggrieved or abused OFW leaves a job without permission, the employer has the power to cancel his or her residence visa, or declare him or her as “huroob,” automatically turning the worker into an illegal resident in the country. Workers whose employers cancel their visa often have to leave the country through deportation proceedings, and many have to spend time behind bars.

This is what happened to “Norhana,” a native of Cotabato who went to Riyadh to work as a domestic helper. Not long after she arrived at her employer’s residence, she was transferred to another household in Buraidah, Saudi Arabia—a three-hour trip from Riyadh—where she was made to work for her employer’s relatives, cleaning all the houses in the compound and attending to their personal needs.

Unable to bear the backbreaking work, she left her employer. Her sponsor, in turn, declared her as huroob, which automatically prevented her seeking another employers or from leaving the country. Eventually, our Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Riyadh was able to settle the case with Norhana’s employer, and she was able to avail of the amnesty program. Without the amnesty program, Norhana would have gone through the deportation proceedings, meaning she would have been detained or jailed before she was expelled from the country.

The kafala system also makes it very difficult for OFWs to contest or complain when their contractual agreement is not followed, or when their labor rights are violated, or even when they face abuse. If they complain, their sponsor-employer can (and usually do) cancel the expatriate worker’s residence visa, or file a criminal case against him or her, as a way of pressuring the OFW into backing down, or reimbursing the sponsor-employer for expenses incurred in hiring the OFW.

Several international human rights organizations have called for the abolition or reform of the kafala system but so far, only Qatar has responded. Early this year, Qatar passed a new law supposedly replacing the kafala system with a contract-based system.

The reality, however, is that many migrant workers there still face legal and bureaucratic obstacles in enforcing their rights. For instance, some companies are requiring expatriate workers to submit a “no-objection” letter from their previous employer even though it is not required by the new law. Moreover, the new law still requires OFWs to obtain exit permits from their employers although they can now challenge any denial of their request through a government committee.

Since our migrant workers cannot be prevented from trying their luck at overseas employment, the government has entered into several bilateral labor agreements (BLAs) with many Gulf countries, in the area of labor standards, grievance mechanisms and labor cooperation. Recently, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd ordered the audit of all BLAs, with a view to starting a new round of negotiations with Middle East countries in order to better protect and promote the welfare of our OFWs.

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