Human Trafficking in Saudi Arabia
In April 2021, a young migrant worker named Caroline Aluoch requested permission to return to her home in Kenya. However, her employer denied her due to his rights under the kafala system. A few months later, Aluoch’s family received a report that she had died during her employment sponsorship. Devastated by their loss, Aluoch’s family recently spoke out about how the kafala system renders migrant laborers particularly vulnerable to human trafficking in Saudi Arabia. Here is some information about the problem as well as efforts working towards ending human trafficking in Saudi Arabia.

Foreign Labor in Saudi Arabia

Workers from low and middle-income countries often seek better wages by taking on foreign jobs. The migrant laborer population in Saudi Arabia is around 13 million people. It consists of people from South and Southeast Asia and Africa working at jobs in construction, agriculture and domestic service.

Most of these workers enter the country through legal labor channels. These workers must adhere to certain restrictions under the employment sponsorship system. This system, known as kafala, began in the 1950s to promote labor sharing in the Gulf Nations. Without reform, though, restrictions through kafala can force laborers to remain in potentially unsafe and exploitative work environments.

Problems with Kafala

The kafala sponsorship system requires foreign workers to obtain a Saudi sponsor in order to work. The sponsor, who is most often the Saudi employer, has the right to decide if and when a foreign worker can transfer jobs or leave Saudi Arabia. According to the 2020 Trafficking in Persons (TIPS) report, one of the most common complaints from exploited migrant workers in Saudi Arabia is that of non- or delayed wage payment. Under the kafala system, workers can become trapped in the unpaid situation.

When laborers face delayed and non-payments, they become more susceptible to economic coercion into other exploitative employment, such as organized begging or commercial sex. As an employment requirement, the kafala system creates a cycle of potential exploitation for foreign workers.

Saudi Government Efforts

In the past few years, officials have developed a legal infrastructure suited to dealing specifically with human trafficking in Saudi Arabia. These specialized courts and screenings intend to protect domestic and foreign trafficked victims and prevent future trafficking. Here are some of the Saudi government’s efforts so far:

  • Law enforcement investigated, prosecuted and convicted human traffickers.
  • Workshops and seminars instructed recruitment agencies on how to teach foreign workers about their rights.
  • The new National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is giving identified trafficking victims the choice of staying in Saudi Arabia and transferring jobs or returning home.
  • The Expansion of the Wage Protection System allows the government to monitor delayed or non-paid wages.

Saudi Arabia and many of its labor-sending countries agree that government oversight of labor has improved, which has benefitted domestic and foreign workers.

Reform to Kafala System

While the Kingdom has made great strides to create safeguards and systems to protect potential trafficking victims, stories like Caroline Aluoch’s demonstrate the current dangers of the kafala system. Sponsorship reform is one of the prioritized recommendations for ending human trafficking in Saudi Arabia, according to the TIPS Report.

Because the kafala system is a decades-old, multinational system, progress has been slow. As global labor organizations have pushed for reform of the sponsorship system, some Gulf Nations have altered the employee restrictions within specific countries. In 2021, Saudi Arabia enacted plans to reduce employee restrictions and protect migrant laborers.

Two big changes to the Saudi implementation of the kafala system seem extremely promising; first, laborers will be allowed to leave the Kingdom without explicit permission from their employers. Second, workers will be able to transfer jobs without their employers’ permission once an employment contract ends. These changes should protect workers like Caroline Aluoch, who wanted to return home when she deemed her work environment too dangerous. Reform to the kafala system is a crucial step towards ending human trafficking in Saudi Arabia.

Hayley Welch
Photo: Flickr

COVID-19 in LebanonDomestic migrant workers in the Middle East are trapped in a modern form of slavery under the Kafala system. Indeed, Lebanon is home to a quarter of a million domestic workers. Domestic workers are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis as a result of the stay at home orders due to the pandemic, but many organizations are helping migrant workers evacuate in addition to providing food, housing and legal assistance amid COVID-19 in Lebanon.

The Kafala System

The Kafala System is an exploitative framework that requires migrant workers in Gulf nations to have a sponsor in order to be employed in these regions. The issue with this type of system is that the worker has no autonomy or freedom to choose how much they get paid, nor do they have the option to choose the hours they work. This gives employers a pass to sexually abuse workers, confiscate their personal documents such as IDs, passports, dictate where their employee is allowed to stay or move to and even withhold pay. In short, it allows for a modern form of slavery.

Due to COVID-19 in Lebanon, the country’s economy is projected to take a major hit. Already, the price of food has become inflated, unemployment is on the rise and the local currency value dropped from 1,500 pounds to the dollar to 3,500 pounds to the dollar.

Organizations Providing Relief

  • Egna Legna Besidet እኛ ለኛ በስደት: Egna Legna is a women’s rights organization run by Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon. Its mission is to provide basic necessities for other female domestic migrant workers at risk. The organization is non-partisan, non-religious and community-based. Egna Legna has raised more than $30,000 on its GoFundMe page which is funding efforts to provide food and medicine to endangered domestic workers in Lebanon. On May 13, the organization made round trips to hospitals to provide migrant workers with food and helped them pay their medical expenses.
  • Kafa: Kafa is a Lebanese nonprofit civil rights and women’s rights organization that is non-governmental and secular. Its mission is to stop violence and exploitation against migrant women in Lebanon. The group’s advocacy aims to amend harmful social and economic laws and provide legal support and psychological counseling to migrant victims of gender-based violence. Its “Enough” campaign has helped more than 1,000 migrant women and refugees who faced domestic violence get affordable legal services and psychological support.
  • Insan Association: Insan is a non-discriminatory nonprofit registered under Lebanon’s Ministry of Justice that works to protect the most marginalized individuals including domestic workers, asylum seekers and refugees. The foundation helps provide assistance to individuals that the government and the legal system do not typically protect. The organization provides legal assistance, psychological support and educational programs for refugees and migrant workers. A decade since its launch, the organization has helped provide legal assistance and psychological support to more than 900 individuals. The organization won the With and For Girls Award in 2015 for its advocacy and assistance with young female refugees.

The fight for domestic worker rights is intrinsically linked to the fight for women’s rights. Around 80% of domestic workers worldwide are women and one in three women in the Middle East are wage workers. These three organizations are spreading the word about dismantling the Kafala system and freeing migrant women from domestic violence and abusive working conditions. In addition, they are working to provide relief to domestic workers who are suffering the consequences of COVID-19 in Lebanon.

– Isabel Corp
Photo: Unsplash

Help People in KuwaitKuwait is not a country that often comes to mind when considering foreign aid. The oil-rich nation may seem self-sufficient; however, Kuwaitis face hurdles in their daily lives and are in need of assistance. Colossal prices for everyday goods, human rights violations and water conditions are just a few of the problems people encounter in Kuwait on a daily basis.

Although the nation is renowned for its high salaries, the correlating high cost of living is often left out. Basic necessities such as rent, food and health care have had drastic price increases. The Kuwaiti Times reports that “90 percent of the population is not as rich as the prime minister says.” The reporter continues to insinuate that the incumbent administration is oblivious to the reality of life in Kuwait.

To help people in Kuwait, combating human rights violations is essential. The Kafala system binds migrant workers to their employers, functioning as a modern day system of slavery. Workers are often vulnerable to forced labor in subpar conditions and abuse. Employers often threaten to deport migrant workers if they do not comply with their demands.

Between January and April of 2016, 14,400 workers faced deportation. Misdemeanors such as traffic violations or talking back can result in harsh punishments from their employers. The European Union has launched a project called PAVE to assist and shield these workers from exploitation. Donating to or volunteering for this organization are both ways to help people in Kuwait.

Although Kuwait is a food secure nation, it stands at ninth place for high water risk by 2040. Unparalleled evaporation rates deplete the soil of its moisture, resulting in a nominal percentage of water flowing into the aquifers. Without any natural rivers or lakes, this proves to be deleterious to the Kuwaiti population.

Contributions to the construction of water treatment plants or waste water systems are both ways to assist the country in their water deficit.

Once we puncture the façade of images of the wealthy Kuwaiti population, we realize that Kuwait cannot be overlooked when deliberating foreign aid.

Tanvi Wattal

Photo: Flickr