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Kenya's Decision Not to Renew Work Permits of Foreigners Draws Criticism - 2003-10-31

The Kenyan government has confirmed media reports it will not renew work permits for thousands of foreign workers, mainly from Asia and the West.

President Mwai Kibaki reportedly assured a senior British government official that foreign workers will not be expelled as a result of the government's new restrictions on the renewal of work permits, and that Kenya values Britain's contribution to the economy.

He was reacting to a statement by his Deputy Labor Minister Peter Odoyo Thursday that 16,000 out of the country's estimated 25,000 expatriate workers will not have their work permits renewed, primarily to create more jobs for Kenyans.

Mr. Odoyo had explained the 16,000 expatriates include mostly Asian and some Western workers, whose jobs could be performed by Kenyans. He said the restriction would not apply to those holding highly skilled positions.

Presidential Press Service Director Isaiah Kabira says companies can rest assured the permits of their skilled workers will be renewed. He says the policy, in addition to creating jobs, is meant to root out corruption.

"In the past, we've had a lot of corruption in the immigration department," he said. "There has been blind issuance of work permits, even in areas where we do not really need very unskilled labor. We are saying we are not going to have a blanket issuance of work permits that has happened in the past."

He says the Ministry of Labor is auditing work permits, and would not say how many expatriates will not have their permits renewed.

Analysts say President Kibaki's promise not to expel legitimate foreign workers does not address concerns about the policy of not renewing so many work permits.

Political analyst and newspaper columnist Robert Shaw says the policy is a misguided attempt at job creation.

"There are half-a-million Kenyans coming onto the job market every year," said Mr. Shaw. "When we look at it in terms of giving Kenyans more job opportunities, it's a relatively small number of people."

He says the gains of the policy will be more than offset by potential losses in foreign investment.

"You're going to find a lot of potential investors will just say, hold on, if that's going to be a problem, then lets go to Uganda, let's go to Tanzania," added Mr. Shaw.

A researcher with the Institute of Public Policy and Analysis, Moses Kiptui, says the Kenyan government is under tremendous pressure to create jobs, but should not do so through a protectionist policy.

"There is need to really allow free transfer of skills from one country to another, especially within the African region," commented Mr. Kiptui.

Mr. Kiptui refers to the recently concluded New Partnership in Africa's Development conference, in which President Kibaki and other leaders stressed the need to integrate into the world economy.