Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 January 2020

Human cost of Kuwait's crackdown on illegal expats

A Philippine diplomat who usually helps maids in dire straits has a new workload, helping hundreds of expats who have overstayed their visas or illegally switched jobs to legalise their status or return home. Elizabeth Dickinson reports
A foreign worker walks along Kuwait City’s corniche. The Kuwait government announced in March that it aimed to reduce the number of foreign workers in the country by 100,000 each year.
A foreign worker walks along Kuwait City’s corniche. The Kuwait government announced in March that it aimed to reduce the number of foreign workers in the country by 100,000 each year.

KUWAIT CITY // Raul H Dado is seldom at a loss for things to do.

As consul general in the Philippines embassy in Kuwait, it is his job to respond to pleas for aid from his compatriots, mostly domestic staff in desperate straits.

He has received calls to help women poised to jump from balconies to escape abusive employers. He once rescued a woman running down a busy highway, fleeing a sponsor whose repeated beatings had left her with a limp.

His latest task is different: helping hundreds of workers who have overstayed their visas or illegally switched jobs to regularise their status or return home.

This hefty addition to his workload came after the Kuwaiti government announced in March that it aimed to reduce the number of foreign workers in the country by 100,000 each year.

About 84,000 Philippine women are employed as domestic workers in Kuwait, and Mr Dado estimates another 5,000 to 6,000 are in the country illegally.

With the government now accelerating measures to regulate its labour force, he deals with as many as 100 new cases a week of Philippine workers seeking the embassy's assistance to legalise their documents.

Kuwait is one of several Arabian Gulf states that have stepped up efforts to curb illegal labour. Saudi Arabia announced new guidelines in April requiring expatriate workers to regularise their status or face fines, prison and deportation.

After scared workers stayed home by the legion instead of going to work, paralysing business in several cities, King Abdullah extended the grace period for labourers to put their paperwork in order. The initial three-month reprieve was recently extended to November.

The get-tough measures come at a time when there is increasing pressure on governments across the Gulf to employ their own citizens and improve the quality of government services.

In Kuwait, expatriate workers, most of whom are in low-paid jobs, make up more than two thirds of the country's 3.8 million people. While unemployment among Kuwaiti nationals is relatively low at about 3 per cent, 70 per cent of the jobless are under the age of 35.

Local media has reported that "several thousand" foreigners have been deported in recent months. Yet while there are an increasing number of voices who say that the size of the expatriate resident population has grown too fast and led to overcrowding on the roads and in medical clinics and neighbourhoods, nearly everyone here admits that some foreign workers will be needed for years to come.

"We're not against having any foreign workers - as long as we do need them for the development," said former Kuwaiti parliamentary speaker Ahmed Al Sadoun.

The government's announcement in March of limits on foreign workers was aimed partly at weaning Kuwaitis away from government jobs and encouraging them to enter the private sector, where officials see a glut of of expatriate labour.

Authorities believe there is an excess of foreign workers because so many are brought into the country under false pretences, said Jamal M Al Douseri, Kuwait's assistant undersecretary for labour.

Privately owned companies often import the maximum number of labourers allowed under a government-approved quota but give jobs only to some of them, leaving an extra pool of workers.

Now, as part of the implementation of a 2010 labour law, the ministry of labour and social affairs has started inspecting workplaces to ensure that all the expatriates a company recruits are actually on the payroll. It also has blocked all new overseas labour recruitment, except for a few industries deemed vital.

"We'll stop bringing expats in the future … anybody who needs foreign workers will have to take them from the internal labour market in Kuwait," Mr Al Douseri said.

Attrition alone could reduce the expat workforce by about 60,000 a year, he said.

Foreign workers and small business owners say the efforts by Kuwaiti authorities to enforce existing labour law are unevenly targeted and harmful for the economy.

Areej Sultan Al Essa owns a beauty-supply company and employs about 20, all foreign nationals. Kuwaitis can find better-paid jobs in the government, she said.

"Unfortunately, the calibre of people I want, I can't find in Kuwait." The people who abide by the law are hurt by restrictions on foreign labour, she said.

Expatriate workers worry that the government's effort to reduce the foreign workforce has made them an unfair target of measures and proposals to solve some of the country's chronic economic and social ills.

When the latest figures about the cost of government subsidies on electricity and fuel were announced in March, some members of parliament suggested charging expatriates full price - nearly 20 times what Kuwaiti nationals pay.

In a bid to reduce traffic congestion, officials this year stepped up immigration inspections on the roads. Colonel Adel Al Hashash, spokesman for the traffic department, said last month that 2,000 traffic offenders had been deported since April.

Amid complaints of long waits to see a doctor, health clinics began experimenting last month with a "Kuwaitis-only" policy for those seeking non-emergency medical care in the morning.

"The proposal is intended to ease the overcrowding at clinics," the information ministry said.

Authorities say moves to overhaul the labour sector are aimed at protecting both foreign workers and Kuwaiti nationals. As an example, they refer to the legal change, not yet implemented, that would allow workers to change jobs after a year without their employer's permission.

For Raul Dado, the long-term effects of this undertaking are but a dot on a distant horizon. His problems and those of the Philippine workers with whom he deals are immediate and pressing, as evidenced by the case files that are piled on his desk and line the walls of his office.

At the end of a long day of following up on requests for help and talking with Kuwaiti authorities who, he said, are very receptive, the room is finally quiet. He repeats the counsel he often gives his fellow Filipinos, most of whom are Roman Catholic.

"We tell them to adapt, to follow the laws. 'This too shall pass'."


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Updated: July 25, 2013 04:00 AM