News / Middle East

Economic, Social Pressures Behind Kuwait Crackdown on Foreign Workers

Kuwait's Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Thikra al-Rashidi in Kuwait City (2012 photo)
Kuwait's Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Thikra al-Rashidi in Kuwait City (2012 photo)
Reuters
The narrow, cracked streets of the district of Jleeb al-Shuyoukh, down the road from Kuwait's main airport, would normally be bustling with Indian and Bangladeshi workers by late morning, just before the summer sun becomes unbearable.
 
But since Kuwaiti police launched a series of raids about two months ago, saying they were tracking down illegal laborers, the streets are almost empty and many small businesses have closed their doors, residents say.
 
In the last few months, authorities have deported thousands of mainly low-paid Asian workers from the Gulf Arab state for working without the correct visa or residency papers or for repeat traffic offenses, according to local media and residents. A government minister has called for a reduction in the number of “excess” foreign workers in Kuwait.
 
The oil-rich country relies heavily on foreign workers to perform low-paying and strenuous jobs in sectors such as construction and services; foreigners make up about 69 percent of Kuwait's 3.8 million population.
 
Pressure to limit their numbers has been growing among some Kuwaitis who argue that too many workers are a burden on the state. They say that instead of bringing in foreigners, Kuwait should be trying harder to cut unemployment among its own nationals, which analysts estimate above 3.0 percent.
 
If this pressure continues to grow, it could have a major effect on Kuwait's economy, limiting its access to low-cost labor, while reducing flows of money to countries which supply foreign workers such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines.
 
“Kuwait is keen to regulate the labor market because of the imbalance in the demographics,” Social Affairs and Labor Minister Thikra al-Rashidi told Reuters, saying the number of foreigners in Kuwait had increased 12.4 percent between 2008 and 2012.
 
“We have respect for all the expatriates who have participated in the labor market and contributed to the development of Kuwait,” she said, but added that there was an excess of unskilled “marginal” workers who were not contributing to the economy in a positive way.
 
Backlash


Kuwait's effort to limit expatriate workers is mirrored in several other Gulf countries, which want to curb large foreign populations to address demands for jobs among their own citizens.
 
Saudi Arabia has deported tens of thousands of illegal foreign workers this year; in February, Oman's government said it would impose a cap on the number of foreigners.
 
Rashidi has called for the flow of foreigners coming to Kuwait to be reduced by 100,000 every year for the next decade, mainly by cutting down on unskilled workers entering the country and targeting people who are working illegally.
 
Her ministry's proposal is still in the planning stages but it has coincided with separate steps taken by other government bodies towards foreigners.
 
Kuwait has deported around 3,000 Indians since the latest campaign started, the Arab Times reported this week, quoting the Indian ambassador. The Indian embassy told Reuters the figure was “approximate”. Other nationalities have also been affected.
 
“The police caught so many people. They came at any time, morning, afternoon, night,” said Rashed, a 36-year-old Bangladeshi barber in Jleeb.
 
Before the raids, he usually had around 20 customers by late morning, but that morning there had been none, he said, declining to give his full name for fear of getting in trouble with authorities. He said he had not experienced such a strict police crackdown since he came to Kuwait 11 years ago.
 
Contacted by Reuters, the Interior Ministry did not give figures for the number of people deported for traffic offenses or incorrect paperwork, but it said laws were applied fairly.
 
“It is the right of any state...to take appropriate legal action to ensure stability and security of the country,” it said in a statement. It added, “The Interior Ministry denies the charge that it is targeting expatriates.”
 
Diplomats from the Indian and Bangladeshi embassies have appealed for an amnesty period before workers are deported, similar to one granted by Saudi Arabia.
 
“We conveyed our concern that our legal people should not be deported, and the deported people should take their salaries and dues from their sponsors,” said Ali Reza, First Secretary at the Embassy of Bangladesh in Kuwait.
 
Hundreds of Indians held a rare public gathering outside their embassy last week to demand information about people who had been detained or deported.
 
Feasible
 
Critics of the policy say steep cuts in the foreign workforce are not economically feasible, especially since more laborers will be needed to implement a 30 billion dinar ($108 billion) development plan which includes building a new airport terminal, an oil refinery and hospitals.
 
Some companies prefer to employ foreigners rather than Kuwaitis who, they say, often seek higher pay and cannot be as easily dismissed under labor laws.
 
But the backlash against foreign workers is not purely economic; they have been blamed in some local media for aggravating social problems.
 
“Kuwait's interest calls for washing our hands of the excessive number of expatriates,” an article in the al-Watan newspaper said in April. “Cutting the number of immigrants could help any country as it helps reduce traffic congestion, high consumption of water and electricity, crimes and violations of law.”
 
In another controversial move, the government is studying a proposal to reserve morning hours for Kuwaitis only at public health clinics. The plan would not affect the private hospitals frequented by wealthier expatriates.
 
After Kuwait's main civil rights group said the plan was discriminatory, the Ministry of Health said in a statement:  “The proposal is intended to ease the overcrowding at clinics that continues to increase for regular check-ups.” It stressed the new policy would not include emergency care.
 
Shamlan Alissa, an associate professor at Kuwait University, said it was not right that foreigners could be deported for repeat traffic violations, while the worst that a Kuwaiti might face would be suspension of his driving license, an impounded car or a fine.
 
His comments, printed in al-Watan, provoked a public reaction which was “not that pleasant”, he said. “There is a popular hatred towards foreigners because we [Kuwaitis] are only 30 percent” of the population.”
 
Ghanem al-Najjar, a professor of political science at Kuwait University who has campaigned for migrant workers in the past, said the government should target businessmen and agencies who brought in thousands of laborers for projects and then dismissed some of them, forcing them to look for work elsewhere.
 
“There are people bringing them in, the residency traders -  these are the people who are not touched. That is a major cause of the problem,” he said.
 
Abdullah, a 35-year-old taxi driver from Pakistan, said he had stopped driving his car into Jleeb because he feared getting stopped, even though he always carried the correct papers.
 
Some labor agencies in Kuwait have duped foreigners by charging them hundreds of dollars for processing a work permit and then not giving them a position, forcing them to turn to illegal jobs, he said.
 
Foreigners helped to rebuild Kuwait after the 1990 Iraqi invasion but now feel unwelcome even if they are there legally, he added. “They just used us and now they want to throw us away.”

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs