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Is there an Emergency Management Response to the Kafala System?

I recently read an article where Qatar is reviewing and fixing their migrant worker system, halting their kafala system.[1] The kafala system is used to monitor migrant laborers throughout many of the Middle Eastern Countries and most of the Gulf Counties. The system has created some very desperate situations for many of those who work under it. According to the arrangement, a local citizen or company must sponsor foreign workers in order for their work visas and residency to be valid. This means that an individual’s right to work and legal presence is dependent on his or her employer. With tight restrictions on changing employers, this dependency renders workers susceptible to exploitation.

In my travels to the region over the years, I have seen this arrangement first-hand. I have watched them trapped in their homes communicating from their balconies with one another. I have personally heard of multiple instances where a person’s travel documents are seized and kept by the employer. The worker then becomes a form of property, and has very little recourse to push back against their employer in cases of abuse. As an emergency manager, I wondered if in a disaster, they would just fall through the cracks.

While not traditionally an emergency management function, I think the condition of migrant workers is a real crisis issue that needs addressed, and no discipline is better equipped than emergency management. As people living or operating outside their nation or culture, they are vulnerable, making them more susceptible to hazards. In addition to the lack of cultural understanding or language, the kafala system potentially creates an additional layer including the inability to move or communicate freely and in some cases, operate legally due to a lack of access to legal documents or identification.

Migrants are vulnerable members of any society, but the intricacies of the kafala system adds additional complexities. The system requires a total overhaul otherwise; it will ultimately be bad news for everyone. There is a multitude of issues associated with poor working conditions, and it’s important to remember that a safe and protected worker is a more efficient and effective worker.

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