Bargaining power, intersectionality, and agency: Varieties of migrant labor experience in the Gulf

Authors: Michael Ewers*, Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of North Carolina - Charlotte, Justin Gengler, Social and Economic Survey Research Institute, Qatar University, Bethany Shockley, Department of International Studies, American University of Sharjah
Topics: Economic Geography, Migration, Middle East
Keywords: migrant labor, intersectionality, agency, Gulf, Middle East
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Virtual 38
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Experiences of labor migration vary significantly, depending on a migrant’s ability to navigate a host country’s social and political context. This is especially true in the Arab Gulf states, where large and diverse foreign labor populations experience complex and interconnected forms of inclusion and exclusion. To many, migration experiences in the Gulf are determined by the kafala system of sponsorship in the Gulf, which ties the mobility, labor power, and treatment of migrants to a local sponsor. Yet, migrant 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 leverage the concept of bargaining power to explain how groups and individuals navigate the kafala migration regime differently based upon the leverage afforded by their cultural and socio-economic identities and home country characteristics. We accomplish this by presenting original results from a nationally representative survey with a wide range of foreign workers in Qatar. 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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