Sponsor-turned-tormentor: Suffering of workers abroad

Wednesday May 13 2020

People demonstrate in 2019 at the offices of Middle East Consultants, a recruitment agency in Uganda's capital Kampala, demanding a refund of their money. PHOTO | COURTESY


In late 2018, Aisha Nalubula was employed as a house help in Saudi Arabia. She was going to work for a family of four — a couple with two children. In return, she would earn 900 riyals ($239) per month. The contract would run until February 2020.

But when she reached Mecca, where her employer lived, things changed.

“On some days, at either 1pm or 9pm, Mama would drive us to her mother’s home where I did the same kind of work with no rest. Her husband would pick us at 4am to return home,” Nalubula says.

Her complaints that she had been hired to work for just one family and that she should be paid more fell on deaf ears.

“She refused to listen and I only stopped working at her mother’s place after I had complained to the local recruitment agency,” Nalubula adds.

What is more, Nalubula, 25, was not allowed to keep or use a mobile phone.


“I had a mobile phone that I hid from them. I would stealthily call home without their knowledge,” she says.

Nalubula is one of the more than 40,000 Ugandans working in the Middle East, according to the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.


About 90 per cent of the domestic workers were recruited illegally and many have reported being physically assaulted and sexually abused.

Nalubula did not sign a contract as her employment was handled through the Kafala system.

“Kafala sponsorship” and “Kafeel” (representing the sponsor) come from the Arabic root “Ka Fa La” meaning “guardian”, “vouch for”, or “take responsibility for” someone.

The Kafala system is however described as a flawed immigration protocol that has resulted in labour and human rights abuses, human trafficking and the death of migrant workers.

An Islamic scholar at the Sharjah Awqaf mosque says that by instituting Kafala, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) governments wanted a local who would guarantee that the visiting person stays within the designated limits of visit or work time, and would report the individual to authorities if they went missing.

The Kafala system is traced to the 1950s when it was adopted as an immigration protocol for the GCC countries as oil revenue started flowing in the region. The GCC nations needed more foreigners to work in their oil fields and to do most of their domestic work that they no longer could (nor wanted to) do given the raise in status.

Ugandan journalist Yasin Kakande talked about the Kafala system in a book he wrote in 2015 titled Slave States: The Practice of Kafala in the Gulf Arab Region.

The system prevails in all GCC countries of the United Arab Emirates, as well as other Arab states such as Jordan and Lebanon. It is centrally administered and regulated through the respective ministries of interior.


Yasin Kakande, the author of 'Slave States: The Practice of Kafala in the Gulf Arab Region'. PHOTO | COURTESY


Kakande’s book is an exposé of the enslavement, trafficking, and general abuse of migrant workers in the Gulf Arab Region. He makes a compelling case for labour rights, press freedom and a reform of the Kafala-sponsorship system.

“This is not an open system that allows foreign workers to have residency visas to legally enter the country and then compete in the labour market for jobs. Rather, each non-citizen worker enters the country already tied to a particular job that is sponsored by a national citizen or company (Kafeel),” Kakande writes.

“The worker is not free to choose his or her sponsor, as the recruitment agents do this, and even when the sponsor is abusive the worker is also not permitted to transfer or change the sponsor lest he or she will be deported,” Kakande adds.

He notes that other immigrants choose to enter the GCC countries illegally because they cannot find a sponsor.

According to Kakande, “Kafala also does not place the worker and his or her employer on equal levels with regard to the salaries or benefits allowable to take home, and once a worker is in the GCC and discovers the employment arrangement either to be poor or deceptive, that worker has little choice and cannot back out and find another sponsor.”

He says immigrants must cope with economic, emotional and social issues. Their salaries may not be paid or they may be withheld and their passports confiscated.

Nalubula recalls that her employers had wanted to pay her after every five months or a lump sum at the end of the two-year contract.

“The wife was claiming that her husband was still recovering the money that he paid to take me to Saudi Arabia. I refused and called the local recruitment agency because waiting for two years or every five months would be a very long time without sending money home to my parents.”

“We eventually agreed that I would be paid after every two or three months. I had feared that they would not pay me or even cheat me. They paid my full salary to my mother in Uganda through Western Union. My mother would withdraw the money and deposit it in my bank account,” she added.


Domestic workers working for Emirati families in the UAE have given accounts of being starved through small food rations, name-calling and other verbal abuses. They have no freedom of movement or communication. They are beaten and sexually abused in homes of wealthy people. There are documented cases of Emirati sponsors physically torturing domestic workers and some have died under questionable circumstances. 

“Some have been beaten to death or left with incapacitating injuries. The female sponsors inflict the beatings more often than their husbands, who are complicit in their tacit endorsements. However, husbands have also been responsible for some of the most vicious attacks,” Kakande writes. “Maids in the UAE have responded to their sponsors’ mistreatment with violence and some have taken their own lives along with those of their sponsors or their children. Some do manage to escape unharmed.”

Nalubula says her employers beat her for flimsy reasons: When she refused to go and work at the woman’s mother’s house, when she declined an offer of leftover tea, and when the flat iron got spoilt.

And when Nalubula parted ways with her employers, they confiscated all her belongings, leaving her with only her handbag and a jacket.

According to Kakande, whereas laws protecting the local citizens are common and strictly enforced, the laws that protect immigrants are scarce and rarely enforced. “It is easier for a local citizen, especially if one is a royal elite, to get away with serious crimes.”


'Slave States: The Practice of Kafala in the Gulf Arab Region', a book by Yasin Kakande. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI


Kafala laws prevent immigrants from doing anything without the approval and consent of their sponsors. Immigrants must seek permission from their sponsors for routine activities like getting a phone and sim card, obtaining a driver’s licence, buying a car, changing jobs, going back to school, travelling outside the country and even making arrangements to get married or bring family into the country.

Even when an immigrant dies, the body remains chained by these Kafala laws and it cannot be moved anywhere, buried, repatriated or cremated without the sponsor’s explicit consent.

“A sponsor also does not need to explain any reasons for cancelling the immigrant’s visa, and any disagreement however minor could lead to the sponsor taking such drastic action. 

Kakande was a Middle East journalist for more than a decade.

He says passports should be honoured as representing an individual’s natural rights. “Sponsors withhold passports in order to blackmail workers and for them not to seek redress of their rights. The other reason for keeping their employee’s passport is to control their lives from every movement to every job transfer.

According to Kakande, the calls for abolishing Kafala are increasing, as stories of inhumane treatment continue to appear in the media and through social and digital media channels.

“Still few, even of those directly involved in Kafala arrangements, grasp the negative impact. Others say that claims about the inhumane nature of Kafala are exaggerated.”

Would Nalubula return to the Middle East as a worker?

“I would not go back there,” was her curt reply.