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International relations

Kuwaiti dream of cutting foreign workers threatens Indians most

Fewer jobs, cheaper oil and COVID-19 may reduce Filipinos and Pakistanis as well

Foreign workers on a construction site in Ahmadi, Kuwait, are threatened not only by COVID-19 but also potentially by unemployment in a draft law.    © Reuters

BANGALORE -- After 12 years working in Kuwait, Mabiya Kadaba fears he will be forced to move back to his native southern Indian state of Karnataka.

A draft bill approved by Kuwait's National Assembly in July intended to reduce the presence of migrants proposes caps by nationality on foreign workers in the country.

Indians would be by far the most affected, with their presence to be limited at 15% of Kuwait's population. That would force an estimated 800,000 of 1.45 million Indians in the country to leave.

Kuwait is a key source of remittances for several South and Southeast Asian economies. India, for example, received about $4.8 billion in 2018. Even though the gulf nation had been considering the population cap for decades, response to such a plan has so far been muted.

"Kuwaitis want their children to get jobs," Kadaba told the Nikkei Asian Review. "A large number of students graduate every year and don't find employment."

With its nationals in a minority, Kuwait has been openly grappling with the problem of reducing its dependence on foreign workers -- at present there are nearly 3.4 million among the total population of 4.8 million.

The National Assembly in Kuwait City has been considering ways to reduce the nation's majority foreign presence.    © Reuters

"That is a big imbalance, and we have a future challenge to redress this imbalance," Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Sabah recently told reporters. He said foreign workers must be reduced from 70% of the population to 30%. That translates into expelling 2.5 million people.

The COVID-19 pandemic and slump in oil prices have contributed considerably to the re-evaluation of foreign employment. State-owned Kuwait Petroleum Corporation and its subsidiaries announced in June that a ban on the future employment of foreign workers would begin in July.

Ali Mohamed, a researcher with Migrant-Rights.org, an advocacy organization, told Nikkei that approval of the draft law does not assure its eventual promulgation. It has been referred to Kuwait's Human Resources Development Committee for study before it is returned to the National Assembly for a vote.

He also reminded that nationality quotas and mass deportation have been regularly discussed since the first influx of migrant workers into Kuwait to service the oil industry in the early 1970s. Such talk generally surfaces during general election years or times of crisis, such as Iraq's invasion in 1990.

Ali also said it would be unlikely to go into full effect given the parlous state of the economy. He noted that there has been significant pushback on such measures from the real estate sector and other businesses.

"This is not yet finalized," Kadaba told Nikkei. "Even if Kuwait goes ahead, they will do it slowly over five to six years, not suddenly. They need time to replace all posts which are currently filled by expats."

But the Kuwaiti government seems to be working more seriously on the issue this time. Authorities have reportedly investigated 450 fake companies that procured illegal visas for 100,000 foreign workers, who have been ordered out of the country by the end of this year.

Early last month, India's foreign ministry spokesperson said that India's expectations had been shared with Kuwait for "consideration while taking further decisions."

Other foreigners, particularly from Bangladesh, Egypt, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, are also feeling vulnerable. Bagshal Mukto, a Bangladeshi who works as a driver in Kuwait City, said the COVID-19 pandemic has already affected his earnings and he is now worried about being forced out of the Gulf. He can envisage little prospect of similar work back home.

Foreign workers waiting for COVID-19 checks at the Kuwait International Fair ground in Mishref.    © Reuters

Asghar Khan from Pakistan works for a construction company, but has spent the last 12 weeks on unpaid leave. "My family is in Pakistan and they rely on me for money," he told Nikkei. "I have been unable to send anything for the last three months, and now this bill has created more problems. I am very afraid about how my kids will eat if I am sent back."

When COVID-19 struck Kuwait, some 400,000 people -- half of them Indian -- left because of unemployment or new visa restrictions.

L.R. Gopal comes from India's Tamil Nadu state and has spent the past 17 years working in Kuwait. He believes the country cannot function without foreign workers, and that the bill can always be reversed by a decree from the emir if things go wrong. He also doubts the Kuwaiti appetite for menial jobs, particularly in areas such as plumbing and sanitation.

"There are companies in which no Kuwaitis work because they demand more money and do less work," said Gopal. He also believes that 90% of parliamentarians own businesses and "wouldn't want to incur losses."

Mohammed Nayeem, a former professor at CMR University, Bangalore, who specializes in Middle Eastern politics and Indian foreign policy, noted that many Gulf countries have long been under pressure to hire locals. Saudi Arabia's 'Saudization' policy dates back to the 1980s.

"Indians have a good reputation in these countries, so the government can negotiate and must work to accommodate them," he said.

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