For nearly half a century, the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — have been a destination point for international labor migration, annually attracting large numbers of workers from the Middle East and Asia. The GCC states are unique because of the skewed character of their demographic profile: Expatriate workers make up more than 50 percent of the total population in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, [1] and more than 25 percent of the populations of Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. [2] While these statistics have become common knowledge among Gulf experts, the GCC countries’ daily administration and control of this vast foreign migrant population is less well known. This article addresses this issue by assessing the situation in Kuwait.

A distinguishing characteristic of contemporary labor migration to the Gulf must be noted from the outset. Labor migrants are always contract workers. [3] Unlike in other regions, labor migration to the Gulf rarely leads to permanent settlement or naturalization, no matter how long a worker has been living and working in a host country. Such possibilities may have existed earlier for a few Arab migrants — especially for Palestinians in Kuwait in the 1950s — but no longer. Although work contracts can be renewed, allowing migrants to extend their stay — sometimes for years, all expatriates know that eventually the contract will expire and they will have to leave the region.

Kafala and Structural Dependence

In Kuwait, migrant workers receive an entry visa and a residence permit only if a GCC citizen or a GCC institution employs them. The employer is also their sponsor. Sponsorship (kafala) requires the sponsor-employer (kafil) to assume full economic and legal responsibility for the employee during the contract period. The kafil signs a form issued by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor whereby he (or she) [4] declares that the foreigner works for him (or her), and undertakes to inform the Immigration Department of any change in the labor contract (expiry, renewal or cancellation), or in the worker’s domicile and civil status. The kafil also pledges to repatriate the employee at his own expense upon termination of the contract. The sponsorship system, which requires that the sponsor and the employer be the same person or the same institution, entails that the migrant worker can only work for him or her while in Kuwait [5] and renders workers entirely dependent on their employers’ good will in order to remain in the country.

The GCC countries do not have a free labor market; workers do not have the liberty to offer their labor to the highest bidder. Competition among workers for the best paid jobs, and among employers for the best qualified or cheapest workers, takes place in the workers’ home countries during the recruitment process. Once in possession of a work contract and an entry and residence permit, the migrant worker is tied to his or her sponsor-employer. Either party can break the contract at any time. If the worker breaks the contract, however, he or she must endorse the cost of the return ticket, which would have otherwise been covered by the sponsor-employer. Experience shows that most migrant workers are prepared to endure considerable hardships rather than shorten their contract period and return home empty-handed. This is not surprising, given that laborers incur substantial debts in order to finance their out-migration. [6] Besides, migrants harbor great hopes that their work in Kuwait or elsewhere in the Gulf will improve not only their own life situation but also that of their dependents.

The sponsor-employer, too, is unlikely to break a contract. He would have to import a replacement which would occasion additional expenditures of time and money. Yet what a sponsor-employer experiences as an annoyance is a crucial matter to the migrant, who is completely dependent on the goodwill of the kafil.

Circumscribing Freedom of Movement

Structural dependence is aggravated by a practice that constrains migrants’ freedom of movement. Throughout the GCC, expatriate workers are required to surrender their passports to their employers. The documents remain in the employers possession as long as the workers are in the country. [7] Although not required by law, this practice is common in Kuwait — and even recommended by the Ministry of the Interior. The local authorities and the citizens justify the confiscation of migrants’ passports on security grounds, reasoning that the expatriate population is larger than the native population and emphasizing that expatriates are entrusted with jobs at all levels (except the highest) in both the public and private sectors, notably in the native citizens’ homes as domestic workers (nannies, housemaids, cooks and drivers). Confiscating workers’ passports is considered an effective crime prevention measure, since those who have committed an infraction will not be able to leave the country and escape prosecution. Confiscating passports also reassures citizen-employers that their employees will not unexpectedly quit their jobs and leave the country before the end of the contract period.

The combination of passport confiscation and the obligation to work only for their sponsor-employer severely constrains migrants’ options in cases of labor conflict. The constraints are particularly acute for low-waged unskilled workers in the private and domestic sectors. If the sponsor-employer refuses to release the employee from the contract, the worker’s only option is to run away. The usual course of action is for the worker to report to his or her embassy, which then tries to negotiate the terms of release from the contract and facilitate the worker’s return trip. Not all runaways wish to leave Kuwait, however. In fact, many remain as illegal aliens, although the law forbids both citizens and foreigners to employ the runaway migrant workers. Low-paid job opportunities are always readily available nonetheless. Obviously a runaway’s status as an illegal worker is extremely precarious. Disgruntled workers view running away as an option only because the risk of discovery by the police is relatively small. The local authorities are aware of the existence of a shadowy population of illegal aliens but they simply do not have enough resources to address the problem — which partly explains why Kuwaitis and other Gulf citizens feel they are outnumbered and threatened by the migrants. Every four or five years the interior ministries of the GCC countries declare a general amnesty to remedy the problem. Within a three-month period, illegal aliens can freely report to their embassies to obtain travel documents, whereupon the authorities grant them exit visas to leave the country.

Threat of Deportation

According to the 1959 Residency Law, an alien can be deported as a result of a judicial or an administrative decision taken by the authorities in the following three cases:

♦ if the alien has been convicted and the court has recommended deportation;
♦ if he or she has no means of sustenance; and
♦ if the Ministry of the Interior objects to his or her presence on the national territory “for security or moral reasons.”

Fear of deportation is widespread among expatriates of all nationalities. Given the relatively limited number of actual criminal cases, the fear of deportation casts a disproportionately large shadow over the daily life of the migrant community. This is because the law considers violation of “moral” norms as valid grounds for deportation. According to the law’s explanatory memorandum, “crimes of a public moral nature” are those in which “the behavior of the alien contradicts the customary criteria of an ordinary man’s behavior.” [8] This formulation is usually taken to mean Kuwaiti customs and norms. Expatriates fear that the vagueness of this formulation can allow the clause to be applied arbitrarily by sponsors-employers, some of whom may simply want to get rid of their employees cheaply (if a migrant is found guilty of any crime, the sponsor is released from all obligations he has contracted vis-à-vis the worker, including repatriation). Although it is difficult to determine how frequently kafils resort to making moral accusations leading to the deportation of their migrant employees, the pervasive fear among the latter reveals that kafils do make use of the threat to keep vulnerable workers in check.

Alien Residence Law vs. Labor Law

In principle, migrant workers in Kuwait are not without legal protection. The 1964 Kuwaiti Labor Law defines workers’ entitlements and rights in explicit terms, including the right to sue their employers for violations of work contracts. Observation reveals that when this does occur and the worker’s case is well grounded, the courts will find the employer guilty. In other words, the worker’s chances of winning a court case are as good in Kuwait as anywhere else. The problem, however, is that even though the Labor Law regulates the relationship between workers and employers, it does not regulate the relationship between workers and sponsors, and as we have seen, the two statuses are merged in the same person.

The 1959 Residence Law regulates the sponsorship relationship, upon which the presence of any migrant in Kuwait depends entirely. Although the Labor Law allows the worker to go to court and sue his or her employer, it does not take into consideration the fact that while the trial is pending, the plaintiff is unemployed and forbidden to work for anyone else. Nor does the Residence Law take into consideration the possibility that the sponsor may resort to preemptive measures, such as accusing the worker of some morally reprehensible behavior that could lead to his or her deportation. Migrant workers are well aware that even if they win the court case, the outcome of the conflict will be the end of their relationship to this particular sponsor. Thus, the worker will have to leave Kuwait and start the whole costly recruitment process anew from home.

Finally, the requirements of the Labor Law are irrelevant to at least one category of migrant workers: those employed in the domestic sector. Unlike expatriates employed in the private sector, [9] domestic workers are not protected by the Labor Law because their concerns are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior, rather than the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. This is probably due to the nature of the venue in which they perform their work: the private homes of their employers. The presence of alien migrant workers in the most intimate sphere of their lives evokes feelings of vulnerability among native citizens. The intimacy of the work venue thus influences the nature of this employer-employee relationship. Consequently, conflicts between employers and domestic employees are viewed not as labor conflicts to be solved in open courts of law, but as private family disputes at best, or as “law and order” problems requiring police intervention at worst. Lacking institutional protection and support, domestic workers can only hope that, in the event of a conflict with their employers, the latter will agree to terminate the contract and send them home. If not, they can only endure the situation or run away.


The treatment of migrant workers in the GCC countries can be explained partly by the demographic imbalance between native and expatriate populations. In Bahrain and Oman, where a lower percentage of expatriates is combined with a greater participation of the native workers, the social gap between natives and migrants is narrower and the role of kafala as a social institution is substantially diluted. In Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, where the percentage of migrant workers accounts for more than half the total population, the sponsorship system is not just one institution among others, it is the central institution, one that defines identities, rights and obligations. Hence, the power of the sponsor is often exaggerated in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE.

In both cases, the sponsorship system ultimately protects local populations, who perceive themselves as being “under siege.” In doing so, sponsorship severely circumscribes some of the most fundamental freedoms of migrant workers and exploits their dependency and vulnerability. The migrants’ structural dependence explains their readiness to comply with the sponsor-employer’s dictates.


[1] The percentage of migrant workers is as follows: Kuwait, 61 percent; Qatar, 75 percent; and UAE, 76 percent. International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1997/98.
[2] Bahrain, 32 percent; Oman, 27 percent; and Saudi Arabia, 27 percent, ibid.
[3] In general, Palestinians in the Gulf are not refugees. Most of them are Jordanian citizens who entered the host countries as contract workers. Before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, one third of the Palestinians in Kuwait were stateless and carried Egyptian, Syrian or Lebanese travel documents. These Palestinians, mostly from Gaza, received special consideration from the Kuwaiti authorities. For example, unemployed widows and their children enjoyed virtual permanent residency in the country. Since 1992, however, there are very few Palestinians left in Kuwait.
[4] Most sponsors are male Kuwaitis. If female Kuwaitis seldom sponsor migrant employees, it is because most Kuwaiti women are either married or live with their natal families. In the former case, they are under their husbands’ legal protection, and in the latter case, under their fathers’.
[5] This obligation is explicitly spelled out in the Residence Law.
[6] Even though the employer covers the cost of transportation to and from the Gulf, the journey itself is the end of a long and costly process of job applications, recruitment, passport application and health control. At each stage of the process, the migrant has to pay fees to agents and bribes to officials. According to a report by the International Labor Organization, the debt incurred by an Indian worker in order to finance his or her out-migration to Kuwait in 1990 averaged $1,700.
[7] The document expatriates carry with them while in Kuwait is the identity card (huwiya) delivered by the Kuwaiti authorities upon request by the sponsor.
[8] Residence Law, official translation.
[9] This is where the majority of expatriates work. In most GCC countries, with the exception of Bahrain and Oman, the native citizens are predominantly employed in the public sector and shun the private sector. In Kuwait, for instance, more than 95 percent of employees in the private sector are expatriates.

How to cite this article:

Anh Nga Longva "Keeping Migrant Workers in Check," Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).

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