Migrant worker agency under the kafala: global mobility regimes and local resistance in Qatar

Authors: Michael Ewers*, University of North Carolina - Charlotte, Justin Gengler, Qatar University
Topics: Economic Geography, Middle East, Population Geography
Keywords: migration, Gulf, Qatar, kafala, labor geography
Session Type: Paper
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Qatar has faced fierce international scrutiny over the welfare of the workers responsible for creating and maintaining the nation's infrastructure, which is being overhauled and developed in advance of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. To many, the blame for these conditions rests with the kafala system of sponsorship in the Gulf, which ties the mobility, labor power and treatment of migrants to a local sponsor and acts, according to the Guardian, as a form of “modern-day slavery.” This paper studies migrant labor agency and resistance under the kafala in the context of regimes of mobility, as some seek to benefit from or circumvent mobility controls, or make decisions about whether to stay or go from their current location. Importantly, workers are not without agency under the kafala, and recent work has emphasized the strategies of both workers and employers to navigate, and sometimes subvert, the kafala as an institution. We examine migrant labor agency and resistance in the Gulf by presenting original data from surveys and interviews with a wide range of foreign workers in Qatar. We argue that the degree of agency that a migrant worker possesses to navigate the kafala and protest treatment with their sponsor is significantly influenced by their nationality. This paper thus speaks to growing work on worker agency in mobility regimes by better accounting for the economic, cultural and security elements that accompany one’s nationality. We conclude with broader theoretical implications of the findings for labor geography.

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