Image Credit: Reuters

Manama: Kuwait will scrap its controversial sponsorship system in February, the social affairs and labour minister has said.

"We will eliminate the sponsorship system in February to coincide with the launch of the labour affairs authority," Mohammad Al Afassi said. "This will be our gift to expatriates on the occasion of Liberation Day," he was quoted as saying by the Kuwaiti daily Al Rai newspaper.

Al Afassi has been spearheading a drive to do away with a system that has often been described as modern-day slavery.

Under the system, foreigners cannot enter, work in, switch jobs in or leave a Gulf country without the approval of a sponsor who has full control over their movements.

The system has come under heavy criticism by local and international organisations which have called for its elimination. However, business communities have forcefully lobbied in support of the sponsorship system.

Bahrain in 2009 became the first Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member to allow foreigners to switch jobs without the approval of their sponsors.

The move was decried by businesses who warned that it would harm the economy, but the Labour Ministry refused to change its stance.

Reactions to Al Afassi's statement about the elimination of the system were mostly positive among bloggers.

"We thank the minister for his humanitarian touch and his compliance with religious tenets that forbid exploiting people," a blogger named Abdul Hamid wrote. 

However, those who opposed the move said that the elimination of the system would compound problems.

"Now, a foreigner can leave his work and work elsewhere regardless of financial commitments or the employer's rights," wrote a blogger named Saud.

"This decision is obviously dictated by foreign forces and we resent it. Who will be made to assume the consequences? Employers have rights and they should not be overlooked," he wrote.

Al Afassi has often said that Kuwait wanted to end abuses by work and residence visa traffickers by eliminating the system and promoting the Labour Affairs Authority to help boost the local labour market. 

Foreigners make up around two thirds of Kuwait's total population of 3.3 million people.