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Migration

The Kafala System is How Capitalism Is Driving Modern Slavery

Monday 9 July 2018, by Aman Madan

South Asian workers in the Middle East are systematically dehumanised and othered in a society where whiteness is considered the ideal.

Beirut: I sit across from Raghav [1] at one of Beirut’s numerous Sri Lankan resto-cafés. We’re in Beirut’s noisy neighbourhood of Doura, an area home to a significant number of Beirut’s migrant worker populations from Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. Life in Doura is no easy feat. On the drive over from the well-polished neighbourhood of Achrifiye, one can instantly discern the change in scenery; the luxury cars turn to buses, the french to Arabic, Bengali and Sinhalese, and the colour of bodies from white to a distinguishable chocolate brown. The smells of Ethiopian and Sri Lankan cuisine mixing with the assortment of argileh flavours fills the air. Doura is rife with hardened men, many of whom are migrants living pay check to pay check. One such migrant is Raghav, who hails from the Punjab in India.

Raghav has changed since the last time I saw him – his beard is neatly cut, his hair sleekly pulled back and freshly oiled. He’s lost weight. It’s his first day off in a month and leaving the compound to get a haircut and to buy oil is only a possibility on that day off. Despite the fragrance of mustard oil which emanates from his body, he seems sadder – as if life itself has been drained from him. Raghav came happy – hopeful even – that life in Beirut would be different. That hope is nowhere to be found today, as Raghav repeatedly asks how he can return to his native India. I don’t know what to tell him other than the truth which both of us know so well: he has fallen victim to the complex and subtle system of modern day slavery that profits in the often involuntary movement of brown bodies from South Asian countries for exploitation in Middle Eastern ones. In short, Raghav has simultaneously become a survivor and active participant of the Kafala system.

Six months ago, Raghav paid a man by the name of Mohan Lal – a third party agent operating in both Lebanon and India – nearly $6,000 for transport and to find him employment in Lebanon. Today, Mohan Lal is nowhere to be found, with some suggesting that he is either hiding in India or incarcerated. Through this agent, Raghav secured employment at Ramco, a lucrative company, profiting from, among other things, the trash crisis in Beirut. Brought over on the premise of working in packaging and earning $600 a month, today Raghav earns only $300, his job is to collect Beirut’s trash for 15 hours a day, and he lives in a single room with nine other men. He is not allowed to leave the compound except on his day off, which is never guaranteed. His passport has also been confiscated, relegating him to the status of corporate prisoner.

Raghav’s story is not unique but it is revelatory. He is but a tool in the vast repertoire of the Kafala system. The Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility defines the Kafala system as a “sponsorship system that regulates residency and employment of the workers in the GCC countries.” In Lebanon, the Kafala system is alive and well, so much so that this economic system which relies on human movement has added another racial element in an already racial society: brown and black bodies are systematically dehumanised and othered in a society where whiteness is considered the ideal. For decades now, the Kafala system has relied on the mass movement of South Asian labour to meet the economic demands of the Arab Gulf. These stories are not new and thousands of individual narratives remain well documented. What is shockingly left out of the narrative, however, is the system’s corrupt collaboration with capital which spans borders and nationalities, and is ultimately race blind; Arab businessmen hire kafeels who then provides the lucrative service of providing human bodies at the lowest possible cost. It is worth clarifying, the Kafala system does not intentionally seek out brown bodies for enslavement, bu