Books Reviews

New book by former Middle East journalist exposes widespread abuses of the Kafala migrant worker sponsorship program


A new book by a Ugandan native who has been a Middle East journalist for more than a decade documents numerous shocking abuses of the Kafala sponsorship system in the Gulf Arab region that the author says constitute ‘pure slavery’ for millions of migrant workers who sustain the vital infrastructure in some of the world’s most celebrated and wealthiest economies.

Scheduled for release next month, Slave States: The Practice of Kafala in the Gulf Arab Region (Zero Books, John Hunt Publishing) by Yasin Kakande includes many individual stories that connect and lead to an understanding of just how the Kafala system became institutionalized as a societal mechanism of exploitation on an unprecedented breadth and depth of scope in Dubai, Qatar and other member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

“To many in and, most certainly, outside of the region, the system is unfamiliar, especially where the media – operating precariously and frequently compromising the fundamental ethical tenets of journalistic obligations – always hesitate and often refuse to give voice or visibility to the extent of abuse that has come to frame Kafala sponsorship in one of the world’s most progressive and economically developed nations,” Kakande says.“There are many delicate, fragile, and intricate mechanisms to preserve a status quo in Qatar, for example, where few would ever dare to entertain the idea of acknowledging the system’s most insidious flaws and injustices.”

Kakande was expelled from Dubai after his first book The Ambitious Struggle: An African Journalist’s Journey of Hope and Identity in a Land of Migrants(Florida Academic Press, 2013) was published, which received considerable international attention from groups such as Reporters Without Borders, Radio France International, and international migrant rights organizations.

He returned to Qatar to work as a journalist shortly afterward where he worked on this newest book. He left Qatar voluntarily and returned to Uganda without incident after he completed the manuscript for Slave States.

Kakande says the impetus for his second book became more urgent after Qatar won The Fédération Internationale de Football Association bid to host the 2022 World Cup and Dubai earned the honors to host the global Expo 2020. Even among journalists who are expected to be fair and balanced in their work, it is considered politically risky and professionally insensitive to criticize the underpinnings by which Qatar and Dubai had come to their good fortune, he recalls.

And, another GCC nation, Saudi Arabia plays host regularly to the largest religious ritual gathering in the world (Hajj) but, as Kakande explains,“its appalling mistreatment of poor foreign workers has never abated and the Kafala system remains securely in place. With the sonorous texts of Islam calling for justice and equality of all human beings, regardless of their race or country of origin, the continued implementation of Kafala in the holy lands is the gravest insult to Islam.”

The book offers a brief history of Kafala and the power of the sponsors’ lobby which has worked aggressively to sustain the system even as serious moral challenges to its continuing existence are raised, while adding the parallels describing the perils immigrants face as they seek work in Qatar and neighboring GCC countries and those who remain in the shadows because of their undocumented status.

Focusing on the second-class status of immigrants under Kafala sponsorship, Kakande documents societal discrimination that borders on humiliation and indecency and how societal exclusion is enforced through punitive threats and strict controls that prevent migrant workers from traveling freely and safely at their own will. These include instances of employment fraud, wage theft, limited means for resolving contract disputes, frustrating bureaucracy, and, more broadly, institutional racism fortified by hate propaganda, stigmatization and subjugation that are rarely challenged with any rigor or clarity by the local or national media.
He reports that even cases involving violence and murder are persistently framed in a way that demonizes immigrants, especially when the evidence would suggest that employers and sponsors were irresponsible about their own legal obligations.

However, the abuses do not end there, according to Kakande. The book includes accounts about how the most basic emotional, sexual, and personal rights of immigrants are controlled and ignored. And, he reports on prostitution and human trafficking that occur with alarming frequency that should upend the most popularly conceived notions about moral decency and strictness in the Gulf Arab region.

Kakande ends the book with his own experience as an immigrant employee (journalist) and how rigorously sustained press censorship thwarts even the capacity to ask simple questions about the propriety of a sponsorship system that has undermined the most basic principles and tenets of a faith and culture that has defined the long history of the Gulf Arab region.

A native of Uganda, Yasin Kakande has been a Middle East journalist for more than a decade. He has worked for the Abu Dhabi-based The National newspaper as the correspondent for the northern Emirates. He also has worked as a news producer for City 7 TV in Dubai, a features writer for the Khaleej Times, and as a reporter and assistant editor for the Bahrain Tribune. He currently works as a translator for The Peninsular newspaper in Doha, Qatar and has done several freelance assignments for international distribution.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda and a master of business administration degree in marketing from the United Arab Emirates branch of the U.S.-based Preston University. He is fluent in English, Arabic and Swahili.


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