This is the end of the sponsorship system, which does not differ much from slavery.
—Majeed Al Allawi, minister of labor of Bahrain, May 4, 2009, upon announcing reforms to allow migrant workers to change jobs without their employers’ consent. The change did not apply to migrant domestic workers.
Incremental Reforms in other Labor Sectors Employing Migrants
Governments have made fewer reforms to immigration policies than to labor policies, and these have mostly applied to migrant workers in sectors such as construction and manufacturing and excluded migrant domestic workers. This is partly because oversight of domestic work falls to home ministries instead of labor ministries in some countries and partly because governments still hesitate to enact reforms that involve regulating private individuals and homes.
In the Middle East, governments have relaxed visa restrictions in specific circumstances. Several governments now allow migrant workers in sectors other than domestic work to appeal for exemptions to the requirement for sponsor consent before transferring jobs if they have validated complaints of unpaid wages or mistreatment. For example, the UAE introduced reforms that allowed workers to seek government aid in changing employers if they had not been paid for two months. In August 2009, Kuwait's labor ministry issued a decree permitting workers to change employers without sponsor consent at the end of their contract term, providing they had completed three continuous years of service with the same employer. However, this decree excluded domestic workers.
In 2009, Bahrain adopted the strongest sponsorship reform in the region by permitting migrant workers to change employment without their employer’s consent and in the absence of allegations of nonpayment of wages or abuse. Majeed al Alawi, the minister of labor in Bahrain, likened the kafala (sponsorship) system to slavery when justifying the reform. The 2009 legal reform allows migrant workers to change employment after meeting certain notice requirements and provides a 30-day grace period to remain legally in the country while they seek new employment. These positive changes do not apply to domestic workers; moreover some human rights advocates in Bahrain are concerned that the law’s requirements are so burdensome that they undermine the reform’s intent. Further investigation is needed to determine the reform’s full impact.
Governments increasingly acknowledge the risks inherent in a system where employers double as immigration sponsors, and are exploring alternatives in which either the government or recruitment agencies serve as the sponsor. However, none have implemented significant reform despite years of proposals and debates. For example, Saudi Arabia is considering a proposal to transfer sponsorship of domestic workers away from employers to three or four large recruitment agencies. The government argues that this move would dissolve all smaller recruitment agencies, and leave it in a better position to monitor the large recruitment agencies that remained. Despite numerous announcements that reform was imminent, this idea has languished for almost ten years. Kuwait is considering a proposal to shift all sponsorship to a single, private-public recruitment agency that would be monitored by a set of shareholders.
Resistance to Ending Employer-Based Visas
Government officials, employers, and recruitment agents often make arguments against reform that reveal deep racial and gender stereotypes about migrant women and men, and the insecurities of wealthy elites that may feel physically and culturally threatened by large migrant populations but are also deeply dependent on them. These dynamics are particularly pronounced in the Gulf, for example in Kuwait, where there are two foreigners for every Kuwaiti, and in the UAE, where more than 90 percent of the private labor force is foreign.
These fears contribute to government officials in the Gulf often viewing “migration management” as much a national security issue as an economic one. Government officials in Asian labor-receiving countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, where migrants can more easily blend with the local population, cite fears of being flooded by undocumented migration. These two countries also generate significant revenues by imposing levies on employers who hire migrant workers. Despite a growing recognition of the abuses fostered by the employer-based sponsorship system, governments have been reluctant to institute reforms that would increase migrant domestic workers’ freedom of movement and freedom to protest working conditions, or that would have the consequence of reducing the funds generated from levies.
A second set of tensions around immigration reform center on sexual stereotypes and fears. Employers commonly describe their fear of migrant men or express stereotypes of migrant women as either sexually loose or as innocent and naïve in order to justify their practices of confining migrant domestic workers to the home and prohibiting them from taking a day off. Government officials often echo these attitudes. Employers cite fears of domestic workers using unsupervised free time outside of the workplace to a) engage in sex work, b) find a boyfriend and get pregnant, c) bring home foreign men while the employers are at work and then rob them, or d) get “influenced” by foreign men to run away, sometimes for better employment and sometimes to be sold into forced prostitution. These greatly exaggerated fears also conveniently make the domestic worker available for around-the-clock household service.
Recruitment and immigration policies reinforce these attitudes and behaviors since employers may incur financial penalties or losses if the domestic worker over whom they have sponsorship runs away or becomes pregnant, since that is grounds for her losing her permission to be in the country and makes her subject to deportation. For example, in Singapore, employers forfeit a S$5,000 [US$3,500] security bond to the government if their domestic worker runs away and is not later located. Some employers develop a sense of entitlement and ownership created by payment of high recruitment fees. The governments in Malaysia and Singapore tolerate practices in which employers pay high fees to recruitment agents but then recoup the costs by deducting them from the salaries of domestic workers for the first four to ten months of their employment. This practice contributes to employers’ reluctance to allow domestic workers to terminate their jobs early or to risk having them run away. Employers in the Gulf typically pay the entire recruitment fee and are loath to lose their initial financial investment should a domestic worker leave their employment after the three-month “free replacement” period offered by many employment agencies.
 Habib Toumi, “Bahrain's decision to scrap sponsorship rule elicits mixed response,” Gulf News, May 4, 2009, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/bahrain/bahrain-s-decision-to-scrap-sponsorship-rule-elicits-mixed-response-1.1965 (accessed April 25, 2010).
UAE Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, The Protection of the Rights of Workers in the United Arab Emirates: Annual Report 2007, pp. 12-13.
 Mohammed Harmassi, “Bahrain to end ‘slavery’ system,” BBC Arabic Service Radio, May 6, 2009 available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8035972.stm (last accessed April 5, 2010).
 Decision No (79) for 2009 Regarding the mobility of foreign employee from one employer to another, Bahrain Ministry of Labour, 79, http://www.lmra.bh/en/resolutiondetails.php?id=334.
 Human Rights Watch interview with Marietta Dias, head of action committee, Migrant Workers Protection Society, Manama, January 28, 2010.
Host countries often fear crime from large populations of male migrant workers, restrict their rights to organize, and crack down harshly on any signs of dissent or protest. For example, Kuwait swiftly arrested and deported workers after strikes where they complained of low or unpaid wages. Raymond Barrett, “Kuwait ramps up deportation of Asian workers,” Christian Science Monitor, August 2, 2008, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2008/0802/p25s25-wome.html (accessed April 25, 2010) and Baradan Kuppusamy, “Malaysia tries to shackle foreign workers, Asia Times, March 3, 2007, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/IC03Ae02.html (accessed April 25, 2010).
For example, Singaporean employers must pay S$170-265 (US$118-184) monthly to a central government fund in order to employ a migrant domestic worker. Given 196,000 migrant domestic workers, this translates to roughly $33-52 million [US$23-36 million] per month in revenue. Portions of these government revenues may come from workers’ salaries given the practice of some employers in Malaysia and Singapore illegally passing on the cost of the levy to domestic workers.
For a fuller discussion, see Human Rights Watch, Help Wanted: Abuses against Female Migrant Domestic Workers in Indonesia and Malaysia, (New York, Human Rights Watch: 2004); Human Rights Watch, Ending Abuses against Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore (New York, Human Rights Watch: 2005); and Human Rights Watch, As I Am Not Human.
 The government gives employers a grace period to attempt to find the worker before forfeiting the bond. If the employer locates and repatriates the worker, the employer may submit a request to have the bond money reimbursed.
In some cases, employers pay a lump sum to agencies and then recoup the fees from domestic workers through deducting their monthly salaries. In other cases, the employer takes a “loan” from the agency and turns over the worker’s monthly wage to the agency as payment until the loan is repaid.