Look-back on the last day

By Laetitia Yantren

The last day of my internship, I presented my work to my colleagues and external members of CRG. CRG normally hosts Friday Lectures, during which academics present their research to a crown of their peers. Because CRG is a research group focused on migration that attracts academics knowledgeable about various aspects of migration—migration and development, social movements in Bengal, international migration, migration and gender—presenting to this crowd is both rewarding and nerve-wracking.

Nevertheless, I unclenched my sweaty palms and went ahead with the presentation. As my stutter grew into more confident affirmations, I realized my luck at having the privilege to present in front of this knowledgeable crowd.

My presentation focused on the international and national legal frameworks for labour in the Gulf, with a focus on Indian migration to the United Arab Emirates. I concentrate on trade agreements as well as the kafala system, the sponsorship program for foreign workers in the Gulf and other Arab countries. Deeply imbricated in the hierarchal tribal structures of Gulf society, the doctrine originates from Islamic doctrines of adoption. The kafala system separates labour law and immigration law for migrant workers, enabling the state to delegate its immigration authority to employers, who by definition must be Gulf nationals. Employers (kafeel) apply for and obtain work permits for their employees, who delegate to the employer their juridical personality as workers. The conflict of interest is glaring: employers are at once agents of the state in immigration matters, and agents of their employees in labour matters.

Under this system, the worker is caught in a tangled web of authority that resembles the family. My presentation argued that the kafala system makes all labour domestic, establishing an unescapable system of dependency between employer and employee that stands firmly outside the free market in order to promote and protect capital from the demands of labour. It is telling, in this vein, that the reforms to the kafala system have purposefully excluded domestic workers, who remain caught within the webs of responsibility, representation and restraint that are characteristic of the domestic relationship.

First, I described the kafala system in the UAE, its international and national legal components, as well as changes that have been made in response to claims by NGOs and other bodies. My discussion of this system included a substantive legal analysis of the kafala system from the point of view of the migrant worker. Finally, I developed the metaphor of domestic work by leaning on theorization of domestic labour. Drawing on the metaphor of family and nation, I argued that the exception is indeed the rule. Building parallels between foreign domestic and non-domestic workers, I argued that both are caught within the webs of responsibility, representation and restraint that are characteristic of the domestic relationship.

When I finished my presentation, I received important feedback from attendees, feedback which will inform my changes to the paper before publication.

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