The Hindu Explains | Should Kuwait’s draft expat bill worry India?

What is the proposal? Will it be difficult to reduce the foreign workforce in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries?

Updated - July 12, 2020 11:03 am IST

Published - July 12, 2020 12:02 am IST

The story so far: The Kuwait National Assembly (NA) is discussing several proposals to reduce the share of foreigners in the country’s population, which is now pegged at 70%. There are many proposals under consideration, and one is to put caps on the number of emigrants in the country. In this, the plan is that Indians should not exceed 15% of Kuwaiti citizens, while Egyptians, Bangladeshis and Filipinos among others must not each exceed 10% of Kuwaitis.

The head of the Parliamentary Human Resources Development Committee, MP Khalil Al-Saleh, is pushing for a drastic reduction in the number of expatriates. Assembly Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim and the government believe that such drastic measures are impossible, though everyone appears to agree in principle that the proportion of foreigners in the population must be reduced. The Speaker has said this week that he and other MPs would submit a new draft law aimed at binding the government to gradually reduce the number of expats, according to Kuwait Times . Kuwait’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister Of Interior and State For Cabinet Affairs Anas Al-Saleh had also promised last week to send a draft law to the NA within two weeks.

Where is the proposal headed?

Kuwait’s Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah had said, “the ideal population structure is to have 70 per cent Kuwaitis and 30 per cent non-Kuwaitis”. Currently, it is the other way around. Such a turnaround will require a drastic and impossible reduction in the country’s total population and the concerns about the proposal are overhyped, said Reaven D’Souza, Managing Editor,  The Times Kuwait.  “It is difficult to foresee any law on this being made during the current term of the NA. If and when it is made, there could be measures to gradually reduce the proportion of foreigners. The concern that there could be mass deportation has no basis.” The full draft of the proposal has not been published.

Why has this proposal come up in the middle of a pandemic?

Kuwaitis are a minority in Kuwait. Of the total population of 4.3 million, Kuwaitis are 1.3 million, which is less than one third. There are more Indians than Kuwaitis in Kuwait — 1.45 million, according to one account. However, statistics available on the website of the Indian Embassy in Kuwait puts the number at above a million. If Indians cannot exceed 15% of Kuwaitis, the cap would be around two lakh. Migration studies experts warn that calculations regarding the potential numbers that could be affected by the law are based on estimates which are various. “Gulf countries are not very open about population data because citizens are a minority,” an Indian working with a Gulf Cooperation Council government said. This has been a lingering concern in all GCC countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic renewed the debate. Said Ginu Zacharia Oommen, who conducted a post-doctoral field study among Indians in Kuwait, “In the past, high unemployment among the natives, economic crisis and demographic imbalance had triggered movement for nationalisation of the workforce. Arab Spring added a new concern of political stability among the regimes. COVID-19 exposed the huge concentration of certain populations among the expatriates, and the resulting imbalances.”

“The current debate in the context of COVID-19 must be distinguished from the nationalisation debate. This one is about diversification of the expatriate community,” the official cited above said.

What is the profile of the Indian community in Kuwait?

According to the Indian Embassy in Kuwait, besides the million-plus who are in the country as legal workforce, there are about 10,000 Indian nationals who have overstayed their visas. The Indian community in Kuwait has been growing at 5-6% per annum until the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic put an abrupt stop to immigration to the country. Indians are the largest expatriate community and Egyptians are the second largest. Three fourths, or about 7.5 lakh Indians are males as against only 2.5 lakh females. It is estimated that 5.23 lakh Indians are deployed in the private sector, as construction workers, technicians, engineers, doctors, chartered accountants, IT experts, etc. About 1.16 lakh are dependents and there are about 60,000 Indian students studying in 23 Indian schools in the country; about 3.27 lakh are domestic workers (i.e. drivers, gardeners, cleaners, nannies, cooks and housemaids) who are not allowed to bring their spouses/children into the country. About 28,000 Indians work for the Kuwaiti government in various jobs such as nurses, engineers in national oil companies, and a few as scientists. In 2018, India received nearly $4.8 billion from Kuwait as remittances.

What has India’s response been?

India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Anurag Srivastava said the Foreign Ministers of India and Kuwait discussed the issue over the phone. “We share excellent bilateral ties which are deeply rooted in people-to-people linkages. The Indian community in Kuwait is well-regarded in Kuwait and elsewhere in the Gulf region and their contributions are well recognised. We have shared our expectations that Kuwait’s decision will take into account,” Mr. Srivastava said.

What happens now?

Around eight million Indians work in the GCC countries. Around 2.1 million of them are from one State — Kerala. Other major contributors to the Indian expatriate communities in GCC countries are Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, West Bengal, Punjab and Rajasthan. A renewed push for nationalisation of jobs and diversification of expatriates is possible. However, the structure of the GCC economies makes any dramatic change unlikely. Nationalisation of government jobs can be achieved to a significant extent, but the private sector will continue to draw the majority of its workforce from abroad.

“The costs associated with hiring a citizen are too prohibitive for the private sector, which will leave the country if it is forced to,” an official admitted. There is a social stratification in GCC countries that has natives at the top, followed by white professionals from the U.S. and Europe, immigrants from other Arab countries and then others including workers from India. “There is a division of labour among these classes and that cannot be changed in a hurry. Replacement of Indian or Asian workers on a large scale is not possible, and native Arabs will not do certain categories of work,” said the official.

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