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‘Every day I cry’: 50 women talk about life as a domestic worker under the Gulf’s kafala system

Condemned as dangerous and abusive, the kafala labour system not only disregards migrant workers’ rights but depends on exploitation. But 10 years after (“sponsorship”) entirely and replace it with a regulated labour network, the system is thriving across Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf states – with the region’s most vulnerable migrants hidden behind closed doors.

Over two years, the Guardian spoke to 50 women who are or were domestic workers in the , Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar or Jordan. Their testimony reveals asection of society operating under appalling conditionsfacilitated by the state’s employment apparatus.

Female domestic workers, generally excluded from labour protection laws by working in private homes, are heavily dependant on their employers.

Even in states where kafala laws have been amended or reformed, as in , little has changed and women report conditions that experts say amount to forced labour.

All of the women interviewed worked seven day weeks and had passports confiscated by their employer. Many reported being subjected to violence and sexual abuse. Most had to pay recruitment fees to get their jobs.

These are indicators of human trafficking – defined by the UN as the exploitation of people through force, coercion, threat and deception.

Women spoke of being dehumanised and treated like “animals”. Perlah*, 33, from the Philippines, worked in Jordan for two years, for a family of six in a flat in Amman until 2022. She was given one meal a day of bread and instant noodles, and had no bed.

“I slept on the outside balcony of the apartment,” she says. “It was too cold. The neighbours could see me sleep.”

Beatrice* was 21 when a recruiter – a man from her community in Liberia – told her she had been awarded a scholarship to study in Oman. When she arrived in 2021, she was put to work. “The job is tough. You clean, wash the car, wash clothes. We don’t have any vacation.

“They beat you; they starve you,” she says. “We are dying – we need help.”

An African woman carries a suitcase on her head though a crowded street with signs in Arabic outside a shop

Under kafala laws, domestic workers are vulnerable to abuse within their employers’ home – and leaving their workplace is a criminal offence.

Tomoya Obokata, a UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery and professor of international human rights law at the University of York, says: “All conditionshighlighted suggest clear indicators of forced labour or the more severe form of ‘domestic servitude’, contrary to international human rights and labour standards.”

In response to the Guardian’s research, Felipe González Morales, former UN special rapporteur on migrants’ rights, said there were “grave violations of the human rights of migrant female domestic workers” where the kafala system was in force.

“The mandate of the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants has called on states to abolish the kafala system, which is a key factor for abuses and impunity, as employers operate as a sort of intermediary of the state, placing female domestic migrant workers in a situation of special vulnerability,” he adds.

François Crépeau, also a former UN special rapporteur, says the labour system is used to extract maximum work for minimum cost.

“The kafala system was transformed into the very oppressive mechanism that we know when those countries struck oil and suddenly became extremely rich and had lots of people to work for them,” he says.

“Before oil, they did not have all these people working for them, or the concentration of wealth.”

A Filipina worker talks on a phone while pushing a child in a buggy through a shopping centre

According to Bernard Freamon, a US law professor and human trafficking expert, kafala gives a “veneer of legality to slaveholding”.

He says: “The kafala system facilitates slavery because it keeps people from having any rights. It keeps them under an absolute regime of control.

“It enables the citizens of the country to have huge amounts of leisure and not do serious work,” says Freamon. “It creates a caste system, where mostly brown, dark-skinned people are running the society in terms of labour but not getting any benefit.”

Several countries have announced reforms to their kafala system, but these have had little impact on workers’ lives.

Rothna Begum, at Human Rights Watch, says: “Across the Gulf, the reforms are slowly moving. For instance, Oman has not reformed its kafala system at all. Saudi Arabia’s is minimal – they’ve been much better at announcing them as if they’re large reforms, but they’re not.”

The UAE government told the Guardian that the country had abolished the kafala system and that laws introduced in 2021 gave domestic workers the right to regular breaks and days off, and the right to switch employer.

However, Begum says: “The UAE’s 2021 labour law has not dismantled the kafala system in full. The [current] system ties migrant workers visas to their employers, allowing employers a huge amount of control over their workers and enabling forced labour and other labour abuses.”

A row of women standing in front of desks with computers and cameras

Nineteen women currently or recently working in the UAE told the Guardian they had been abused by employers or recruitment agencies. Several said they had never been given a day off.

A Qatari government spokesperson said there have been a number of legal reforms in the past decade, including allowing migrant workers to change jobs without their employers’ consent and setting a higher minimum wage.

But Crépeau notes: “It’s not really the laws that are the problem – the labour code of Qatar compares quite well with labour codes elsewhere – but they do not apply the laws.”

Five domestic workers in Qatar told the Guardian they were unable to leave their employers; three say their employers said they would have to pay them if they wanted to be “free”.

Jasmine* has tried to get help from the Philippine embassy in Qatar to leave her employers of eight years who are holding her passport and ID card and have demanded 13,000 riyals (£2,800) for permission to leave their house. This is an impossible amount of money for her.

“I want to leave them for good and apply for a job in a country where I can have time off at the weekend. I’m so tired from working without a day off,” she says.

“I think about killing myself because I’m so stressed. Every day I cry because I feel so hungry and so tired.”

UN guidelines state that confiscating passports is an indicator of human trafficking and forced labour, because it restricts freedom of movement and is abusive.

It is not uncommon for or go missing. Their families can rarely access justice, or sometimes even get clear answers on the cause of death.

In October, the Guardian , a 39-year-old mother from the Philippines who died in unexplained circumstances at a UAE recruitment agency and whose family could not afford to repatriate her body. The UAE authorities intervened and returned her body to her family in the Philippines after the Guardian’s report.

A woman surrounded my other protesters holds a sign saying ‘down with the kafala’.

Jullebee Ranara, a Filipina domestic worker living in Kuwait who was in January 2023. Her charred body was found in the desert. In 2018, 29-year-old in a Kuwait apartment. She had been missing for a year.

About between 2016 and 2021, more than 50 were suicides, the Bangladesh government reported. In Lebanon, an average of , according to the country’s intelligence agency. Many fall from high buildings during escape attempts or kill themselves.

Despite this, domestic workers are criminalised for running away. Three women who had been jailed for absconding – told the Guardian they had fled violent employers.

Kevin Bales, professor of contemporary slavery at the University of Nottingham, says: “The whole concept of ‘absconding’ simply reflects a system of very serious physical control, that is part of the window-dressing of enslavement.

“These workers are being treated as if they are property, the fundamental defining characteristic of enslavement.”

It will take meaningful pressure for vulnerable migrants to be properly protected, and western nations are unlikely to take a stand, say Bales and Crépeau.

“Many countries, including the UK, don’t seem to be interested in raising questions about this,” says Bales.

“These are oil rich countries that buy very significant amounts of military hardware and tech – as well as other of our exports – and certainly the current government would never want to rock that boat.”