Monday, November 2, 2015

Kafala as a business; Kafeel as a career

Migrant Rights

Vijaya* puts away a part of her income every month. Each March, she uses those savings to renew her residence visa and to pay the kafeel her annual fee. In the 20 years she has been in Qatar she has had three kafeels. Her last visa transfer was two years ago. She has to keep her current ‘madam’ happy as she will not be able to transfer her visa for a third time.

Kafala governs the recruitment, employment, and residency of migrant workers of all economic class and profession. To be a kafeel is to wield inexplicable powers; and to be the kafeel of a worker with a ‘free visa’ is highly lucrative. That one signature on a piece of paper can fetch anywhere around QR10,000 for the first year, and between QR5000 and QR7000 ($1200-1800) annually for the period of sponsorship. The kafala system then becomes a part-time business and a professional calling in itself.

If you give out two or three such visas, you make about $5500. It doesn’t seem much in the Qatari context, but as Vijaya points out, it meets a need for many who may not have family support or regular income.

This is not a phenomenon exclusive to Qatar, and is in fact more widespread in countries like Saudi.

A 2012 report by University of California, Davis highlights this:

Because migrants from many migrant-sending countries are willing to pay $500 or $1,000 for sponsorships, some local citizens profit by sponsoring migrant workers they do not intend to employ. These payments to sponsors make it hard for GCC governments to abolish the kafala system.

Vijaya doesn’t mind paying that fee for her freedom. This way, she can choose to work in multiple homes, make more money, give herself a weekly off, work fewer hours and not really expose herself daily to the whims of one employer. It’s a free market. This kind of irregular work visa is deemed ‘illegal’ in Qatar and across the GCC.

All these ‘privileges,’ or basic rights, are not extended to many migrant domestic workers in the region. Last year’s Amnesty report on Qatar’s domestic workers ‘My sleep is my break’ highlighted that some women worked up to 100 hours a week, and were subject to deception and abuse.

Human Rights Watch’s report on UAE ‘I already bought you’ records similar stories: no mobility, confined to employer’s home, no off day and working up to 21 hours a day.

Vijaya lives here with her husband. He doesn’t earn enough to acquire a family visa (minimum requirement of QR10000 monthly), but for this middle-aged couple, the arrangement they’ve made for themselves in Qatar has changed their lives. They are saving for retirement now, having helped their now adult children settle into marriage and work.

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