Kafala system blamed for increased migrant worker deaths in Gulf

Figures published by Non-Resident Telugu Society (APNRT), a government agency working for the welfare of Non-Resident Indian (NRI), show that in the 19 months, from January 2018 to August 2019, a total of 174 NRIs from Andhra Pradesh working in the Middle-East returned home in coffins. That is around one migrant worker from Andhra arriving home dead, every three days during the 19-month period.

Many of these deaths were suspected suicides, allegedly triggered by anxiety, starvation, extreme weather conditions, mistreatment and torture at the hands of sponsors. Shamefully, the majority of deaths during the reported period, 121 to be precise, or around 70 percent of all fatalities, occurred in Kuwait.

Officials at APNRT attribute many of the deaths to the sponsorship or ‘kafala’ system that prevails in the Middle-East. The system is widespread in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, where anyone seeking to enter on an employment visa needs to have a sponsor, or ‘kafeel’ In the case of a public or private sector employment, the kafeel could be the ministry or company where the expatriate works, or in the case of a domestic-helper, the kafeel could be the head of the household.

While workers in the public and private sector are governed by strict labor laws that prevent exploitation to an extent, domestic workers have scant legal protection and are often at the mercy of their kafeel. Household workers are known to be subject to mental and physical abuse at the hands of their sponsors or other family members; their passports are often confiscated, their communication with outsiders restricted, and the sponsor gets to control where and when they are employed and for how long.

In recent years, a substantial number of laborers from Rayalaseema, and East and West Godavari districts of Andhra Pradesh were conned by agents and sent to Kuwait on visitor visa. Their visas were then transferred to domestic visa and they were forced to work as domestic helpers in households in ‘slave’ like conditions. Many of them did not have their visas renewed and as such they became illegal residents who could be arrested by the authorities and thrown into jail. The continuous mental and physical abuse led many migrant workers from Andhra Pradesh to seek a way out by committing suicide, said an APNRT official.

Periodical amnesties offered by governments in the region to those with expired visas, is the only hope for those lucky enough to escape from their sponsors. With the assistance of their compatriots or their embassy, they are able to return back to their homes. Unlucky ones, continue to live and work until one day their will to survive collapses and they seek the only way out by ending their lives.

Not surprisingly, Kuwait ranks second after the UAE in terms of the number of illegal Andhra workers who availed of amnesty granted by the government. The APNRT on its own aided 117 migrant workers from Andhra to return home safely from Kuwait, said the official.