COVID-19 and the Kafala system: protecting African female migrant workers in Gulf countries

By Mona Ahmed, Junior Policy Analyst, OECD Development Centre

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected women and men differently depending on the sector they work in, their employment situation and their access to labour and social protection measures. Domestic and care work, traditionally female-dominated, form one of the most marginalised, undervalued and least protected employment sectors. It therefore comes as no surprise that the current crisis has not reinvented the wheel, but rather amplified persistent vulnerabilities faced by female migrant workers.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are home to the world’s largest number of international labour migrants. According to a study carried out by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), 12% of the 28.1 million migrant workers in GCC countries in 2017 were African, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait hosting almost 90 percent. Historically a destination for South and Southeast Asian workers, the growing demand in domestic labour has attracted a considerable number of East and West African women, mostly from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana. Despite their economic contribution in both origin and destination countries, the duties of child and elderly care, cleaning and food preparation are culturally devalued and receive limited social recognition.  

“The Kafala system is the legal framework that determines the relationship between foreign workers and their sponsor (kafeel).” #DevMatters

The Kafala system is the legal framework that determines the relationship between foreign workers and their sponsor (kafeel). Although travel expenses and housing are covered, low wages, poor working conditions, inhuman treatment and cultural isolation are some of the challenges recent testimonies of female migrant workers from East and West Africa revealed.   This imbalance is amplified by the sponsor’s unilateral decision-making power to extend work permits: if domestic and care workers decide to leave their jobs without permission, they risk deportation or imprisonment.

In reality, female migrant workers are exposed to multiple risks early on, when organising their overseas deployment with recruitment agencies. A recent study carried out by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) showed that brokers and recruitment services in West and East African countries share insufficient and sometimes misleading information with female workers. While demanding exorbitant fees to facilitate travel arrangements, reliable details about employment terms, the exact destination country and support mechanisms, are incidental. To address these shortcomings, a number of African governments have imposed temporary labour migration bans on GCC and Middle Eastern countries, including Kenya (2012), Ethiopia (2013), Uganda (2016) and Ghana (2017), making it illegal for their domestic workers to migrate to these countries for labour reasons. Despite the temporary bans, private recruitment agencies have continued to operate illegally, and female migrant workers have resorted to clandestine channels.

Female migrant workers in GCC countries had limited access to health care and maternity protection even before COVID-19, as social protection measures like sick leave are not covered bythe Kafala system. Despite the great exposure to COVID-19, seeking medical assistance does not only violate employment terms, but irregular female workers risk arrest, detention and deportation. Increased responsibilities have made already long-working days of up to 17 hours more difficult to survive. With school closures, domestic workers and caregivers are obliged to look after their employer’s children in addition to their usual tasks.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that GCC countries will see their economies shrink by 7.6 percent in 2020, which affects female migrant workers in three ways: reduced salaries, limited options to send remittances to origin countries and forced return or irregular status after losing their jobs. Extremely worrisome is how COVID-19 has increased the exposure to emotional, physical and sexual abuse. The vast majority of female migrant domestic workers and caregivers live in their employer’s home. With national lockdowns, even the few occasions to go outside and socialise are taken away. This puts female migrant workers in a situation of “no escape”, with detrimental impacts on their mental and physical integrity.

Paradoxically, while the pandemic has a disproportionate impact on female migrant workers’ health, well-being and livelihoods, this very same group is predominantly excluded from government policy responses.In the spirit of the SDGs to leave no one behind, what is the way forward to put an end to the vicious circle of precariousness?

“Paradoxically, while the pandemic has a disproportionate impact on female migrant workers’ health, well-being and livelihoods, this same group is predominantly excluded from government policy responses.”#DevMatters

First, efficient labour migration regulatory frameworks and inter-regional dialogue between GCC and African countries need to take place to ensure accountability and find alternatives to the Kafala system. The progress made by the Abu Dhabi Dialogue (ADD) to strengthen co-operation between Asian countries of labour origin and destination, while enabling safe, orderly and regular labour migration, can serve as an example to implement a similar dialogue mechanism with West and East African countries. The ILO Convention 189 lays down a series of basic rights and principles to set minimum standards for domestic workers around the globe. Second, the support mechanisms female migrant workers receive in both origin and destination countries need to be intensified. Although some improvements have been made through mandatory pre-departure orientation training in countries like Tanzania and Uganda, it is unclear how many female migrant workers are informed about and make use of these services. It is therefore necessary that West and East African governments make pre-departure training a prerequisite to be granted a work visa for GCC countries. Third, the oversight and regulation of recruitment agencies need to be improved to combat the dissemination of misleading information on employment conditions. In this regard, countries can draw upon Ethiopia’s Overseas Employment Proclamation No. 923/2016 and Uganda’s Guidelines on Recruitment and Placement of Ugandan Migrant Workers Abroad, which are intended to strengthen official recruitment processes and prevent abusive and fraudulent practices. Lastly, East and West African countries, in co-operation with international organisations, must systematically collect and manage data on labour migration patterns, enabling better targeted protection measures for female migrant workers.