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“Kafala” Persian Gulf Countries Enslavement System

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by Geletaw Zeleke
The absolutist monarchy of Saudi Arabia has been stubborn about accepting the advice of human rights organizations for long time. Year after year the terrible conditions of human rights have persisted to be among the worst of our planet. The violation of rights of women and foreign workers characterizes the country. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. To this extent Saudi is far off from rights issues. Such oppression cannot continue on in this way for obvious reasons. As we have learned from human development there will be change sooner or later. The Arab spring will most likely pass through Saudi Arabia and respect for human rights might then be able to be heard from that region.
A country rich from oil, Saudi Arabia, has a high demand for foreign workers especially those from poor countries. The main system that Saudi employees to invite workers to its land is known as the “Kafala” system. In fact, the same system is employed not only in Saudi Arabia but throughout the majority of Persian Gulf countries or the so called (GCC- Gulf Countries Council).

Hundreds of foreign workers were leaving the Manfuhah district on Sunday

The Kafala system takes away workers rights and puts them in the hands of their sponsor. A person going to work in Saudi Arabian or other Persian Gulf countries through the Kafala system has no right to alter his workplace. He also has no right to leave the country without the permission of the sponsor. The Kafala visa system is more appropriately named the Twenty-first Century Persian Gulf Countries Enslavement System.

As many victims have witnessed, sponsors take possession of passports and other important documents upon their arrival to Saudi Arabia. The fate of such foreign workers falls to their sponsors. When sponsors abuse the rights of these foreign workers, some workers try to escape and have lost their lives in the process. Tragically, many domestic workers in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia have been known to jump from high-rise buildings trying to escape from their sponsors. Millions of immigrant workers in Saudi Arabia do not have a system that provides them with security or gives them confidence in institutions. Foreign workers who do escape then become undocumented. Is it fair to label these people as illegal? Even if they want to go back home since their sponsor has to provide them with an exit visa and in fear of arrest they are forced to live a life of fear with no immediate escape in sight. Who is the real criminal in this situation? Those people who are labeled “illegal “are not but instead the system that has exposed them to such circumstances has violated the international law through exploitation and abuse.
GCC countries know that the Kafala sponsorship program is an illegal system as when they ratified the Universal Human Rights Declaration. Article 13 of the universal human right declaration states that,
1 “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.”
2 “Everyone has the right to leave any country including his own, and return to his country”.
The Kafala system at minimum violates Article 13 so, those countries who employee this system including countries that sell their citizens under the Kafala sponsorship system clearly violate this international law. This system also violates their constitutional laws at the same time. What is more, Sharia law promises pay before your sweat dries. Still a number of domestic workers of Ethiopian decent living in Saudi Arabia are yet to be paid their promised salaries.
We might ask why GCC countries employ this system while they know that it is illegal under international labor law. It seems that the Gulf Countries Council has employed this calculating system for economic exploitation of foreign workers. Under this insecure system cheap labor is imported and then used for advantage at the overall expense of workers.
According to sources there are about 15 million immigrant workers in the GCC and most of them are in Saudi Arabia.
In countries where millions of workers are foriegners we can easily see how the Kafala sponsorship system exposes them to massive human right violations. Since the focus of these countries is economic gain by manuplating a foreign worker force the responsibility to protect these workers falls to the employers. One sponsor may have a number of workers under him and their fate is determined by his skill, relative good will and ability to control and manage. Further, in countries where the culture of democracy is not well developed the problems with this kind of sponsorship grow worse and worse by manipulation of greedy employers.
There is also another illegal visa system which Saudi Arabia uses to exploit foreign workers. The name of this illegal visa is called “Free Visa”. This kind of visa allows the foreign worker to find his own job with only a nominal sponsor. This kind of visa allows Saudi Arabians to bring foreign workers from abroad in the name of businesses organization that do not exist. People who were brought to Saudi Arabia in this visa system have to pay a lot of money every month for their sponsor who controls their visa permits.
In recent years Indonesia and the Philippines have attempted to negotiate labor agreements concerning the minimum wage and other human right issues of their citizens. However, because of the resistance of the Saudi Arabian government these two countries have prohibited their citizens from entering into employment agreements with Saudi Arabian employers. It appears that the Saudi government which has set out to gather an unprotected cheap labor force has found just that in Ethiopia, a country with a government that is not concerned with protecting its citizens. The Ethiopian government has sold its citizen into the Kafala system to benefit from the remittances of foreign currency by migrant workers. The Ethiopian government does not worry for the livelihood of its citizens instead it only concerns itself with the revenues and guarantees of revenue they build. Sources reveal that the Ethiopian government agreed to regularly recruit 45,000 women to fill the need for cheap labor in Saudi Arabia. Would a competent government who boasts growth sell its own citizens into unsafe working agreements? No, the reality is that this is the manifestation of huge internal problems.

Although there has always been a problem in this region the recent crackdown and abuse in Saudi Arabia especially against Ethiopians has angered Ethiopians all over the world. Those who were exploited, abused or undocumented are now again being attacked by government security officers and police. This action is unfair and a crime. Ethiopians will seek justice from the international justice bodies.
After unregulated exploitation of foreign workers Saudi Arabia is in a state of heightened crackdown to deport Ethiopian migrant workers. Due to the nationwide crackdown brutal attacks have been committed against unprotected workers by security forces and the police. This action has caused an outcry of Ethiopians around the world angered by the inhumane practices of the Saudi Arabian government on the one hand and the uncaring attitudes of the Ethiopian government on the other. Both buyers and sellers of labor under the Kafala system are to be held accountable for the current humanitarian crises.
Ethiopians, we have never before been so embarrassed by such failures of our government. Let all political parties and civic organizations stand together to help protect our brothers and sisters in Saudi Arabia and to renew our struggle to overthrow the current failed Ethiopian government which is at the root of our problems.
God Bless Ethiopia