Kafala system and women domestic workers

March 8 is being celebrated throughout the world as International Women's Day. In Bangladesh, women from all backgrounds, working in the formal and informal sector, or as professionals will articulate their demands in various seminars, dialogues, rallies, etc. However, one group of women will be unable to raise their voice; they are the women domestic workers who work in the Gulf and other Arab countries. This year, 1,03,000 female workers migrated abroad, which is 22 percent of the total migrant workers. While some of them succeed in achieving their dream of social and economic advancement, others fall into the trap of debt, contract substitution, non-payment of wage, verbal or physical abuse or sexual exploitation. The majority may not know that the United Nations has marked this day for them as well. This article is dedicated to them.

Many problems that migrants in general or women domestic worker, in particular, encounter emanate from the practice of the Kafala system in the Gulf. Currently, some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are considering reforms of the system. Until substantive changes take place, all workers including women domestic workers have to work under the system. Therefore, it is important that a departing woman migrant has adequate information about her rights and obligations under the Kafala system.

The literal meaning of kafeel is sponsor. A worker can only secure work permit in GGC countries if a kafeel sponsors him/her. For most part, employers are kafeels. They can be individuals or companies. Nonetheless, migrants' immigration status, stay and exit, all are tied to the kafeel. In theory, all expenses, including payment of levy to government, travel and insurance costs are to be borne by the kafeels. For decades, the kafeels have not been bearing the costs any more. They are passed on to those women and men who want to migrate for employment through the operation of a series of agents and sub-agents, both at sending and receiving ends. Under the Kafala system, some categories of workers enjoy provisions for overtime, gratuity, weekly and annual leave. These provisions are not applicable to those who work in the houses as security guards, domestic workers, gardeners and drivers.

The Kafala system is particularly strict when it comes to the movement of female domestic workers. In almost all cases these workers are not permitted to go out of the household premises. Confined status and home sickness take toll on some. A section of them try to return home before completing their tenure.

Prior to their deployment, women domestic workers need to know that untimely return may be permissible under the law, but the employer can demand the reimbursement of levy and travel costs from the domestic worker as on paper the employer had paid those costs. Before departing for employment, women domestic workers must have the mental preparation that she will have to remain confined within the household and may have to bear costs if they opt for early return due to home sickness.

 The possibility of women migrants facing verbal, physical or sexual harassment or abuse within the household remains high. When such abuses take place or when a domestic worker fears that such an incident may occur, they should not attempt to flee from their employer and find work elsewhere. As per the law of most GCC countries, a woman domestic worker can change an abusive employer up to three times. The embassy can help them in this respect. If they run away, they are liable to be prosecuted and jailed. In case of physical or sexual abuse, they need to go to the police or find a way to their embassy. They also need to go to a hospital to secure medical evidence in favour of their claim. In the courts, they can secure legal remedy if they lodge a complaint within three months of the occurrence.

In almost all cases, the kafeel takes away female domestic worker's passport upon arrival. This may not create problem when the kafeel ensures her protection and fulfils all the obligations under the job contract. But there are incidents where the domestic workers may experience non-payment of salary and allowance. They may not be given annual leave. The employer may also lodge false complaints against them to avoid due payment. In all these situations, the women domestic workers are entitled to register a complaint to competent authorities (such as police, ministry of interior and labour courts). If the passport is with the kafeel, they cannot secure redress for lack of identity documents that provides evidence of their bonafide legal status. It is advised that they make two sets of photocopies of passport, and other relevant documents and keep one set in a secured place at home and carry another set with them as proof of their identity when needs arise. If possible, they may open an email account with the help of union information centres and keep a scanned version on line in that account.

Law enforcement agencies of the destination countries sometime arrest the workers when they receive complaints from the employers. Sometime they are forced to sign false confessions. The women migrants are to be informed that if they are arrested and asked to sign any document, they should not. Female domestic workers have a right to ask for the services of an interpreter and know the charges against them and contents of any document that they are asked to sign.

International Women's Day will be meaningful for the women domestic workers when government and civil society organisations can ensure dissemination of these information to them prior to departure, provide assistance through embassy in the destination and raise voice in the multilateral forums for meaningful reform of the current ill practices of the Kafala system. Perhaps the time has come to collectively push for the ratification of the ILO Convention 189 on Domestic Workers by all parties, including Bangladesh.

The writer is Professor of Political Science of University of Dhaka and Chair of Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU)

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