Unfree: migrant domestic labour in the Middle East

Hosted by the International Inequalities Institute and LSE Middle East Centre

Online public event


Professor Rhacel Salazar Parreñas

Professor Rhacel Salazar Parreñas

Lina Abou Habib

Lina Abou Habib


Dr Steffen Hertog



Dr Shalini Grover

Dr Shalini Grover

The Kafala System, an employment scheme in the Middle East, has attracted much academic scrutiny and criticism over the decades. Human rights activists align the system with slavery, unfreedom, and human trafficking. In her new book, which she will discuss at this event, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas offers more nuanced accounts of workers relationships with their employers in the United Arab Emirates.

Rhacel's work employs novel methods of researching the Kafala system and its impact on workers and questions concepts such as unfreedom and freedom. Whilst her arguments highlight the dehumanising treatment and lack of recognition of migrant domestic workers, her empirical data crucially illuminates the diversity of work conditions. A key argument is that rather than ‘abuse’ being the main point of reference in Kafala debates, it is the absence of labour standards in the region that leads to unequal and complex employment relationships. A diverse panel of academics, stakeholders and human rights activists will offer their reflections on Parreñas’ book, highlighting their expertise from the Middle East.

Meet our speakers and chair

Rhacel Salazar Parreñas (@rhacel) is Professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Southern California. She previously taught at University of Wisconsin, Madison, University of California, Davis, and Brown University. Her areas of research include labour, gender, international migration and human trafficking, the family and economic sociology. She is an ethnographer who has conducted field work in Denmark, Italy, Japan, Philippines, Singapore and United Arab Emirates.

Lina Abou-Habib (@LinaAH1) is the Director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut. She also teaches undergraduate and graduate gender courses at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the American University of Beirut and is the Gender Project Director for the AUB MEPI-TLS Program. She currently serves on the Boards of Haven for Artist and the Collective for Research and Training on Development – Action and is a member of the editorial committee of the Gender and Development Journal published by Oxfam.

Steffen Hertog (@shertog1) is an Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research interests include Gulf politics, Middle East political economy, political violence and radicalization. He has been researching the political economy of migrant labour in the GCC and advised the ILO and World Bank. He was lead researcher for an ILO report that provided the analytical backdrop for the liberalization of the Qatari labour sponsorship system in 2020.

Shalini Grover (@ShaliniGrover10) is an anthropologist and Research Fellow at the LSE International Inequalities Institute (III). She has published widely on marriage, love, kinship, legal pluralisms, labour relations and globalized care. Her most recent research focuses on globalized care through an anthropological- historical lens. Before coming to LSE, she was Associate Professor in Anthropology at the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG, University of Delhi) and spent a decade in India.

More about this event

The International Inequalities Institute (@LSEInequalities) at LSE brings together experts from many of the School's departments and centres to lead cutting-edge research focused on understanding why inequalities are escalating in numerous arenas across the world, and to develop critical tools to address these challenges.

The Middle East Centre (@LSEMiddleEast) builds on LSE's long engagement with the Middle East and North Africa and provides a central hub for the wide range of research on the region carried out at LSE. The Middle East Centre works to enhance understanding and develop rigorous research on the societies, economies, politics and international relations of the region.

Twitter Hashtag for this event: #LSEIII

Podcast & Video

A podcast of this event is available to download from Unfree: migrant domestic labour in the Middle East.

A video of this event is available to watch at Unfree: migrant domestic labour in the Middle East.

Podcasts and videos of many LSE events can be found at the LSE Public Lectures and Events: podcasts and videos channel.

Live captions

Automated live captions will be available at this webinar. Once you join the Zoom webinar, you will be able to show or hide the subtitles by clicking on the “Live Transcript - CC” button, from where you can also change the font size and choose to view the full transcript. Please note that this feature uses Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) technology, or machine generated transcription, and is not 100% accurate.


We aim to make all LSE events available as a podcast subject to receiving permission from the speaker/s to do this, and subject to no technical problems with the recording of the event. Podcasts are normally available 1-2 working days after the event. Podcasts and videos of past events can be found online.

Social Media

Follow LSE public events on Twitter for notification on the availability of an event podcast, the posting of transcripts and videos, the announcement of new events and other important event updates. Event updates and other information about what’s happening at LSE can be found on the LSE's Facebook page and for live photos from events and around campus, follow us on Instagram. For live webcasts and archive video of lectures, follow us on YouTube

LSE in Pictures is a selection of images taken by the school photographer.

From time to time there are changes to event details so we strongly recommend that if you plan to attend this event you check back on this listing on the day of the event.