02/01/2022, 10.43
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Kuwait deports migrants: economic growth at risk

by Dario Salvi

Last year, more than 18,000 foreign workers were expelled, including 11,000 men and more than 7,000 women. The government wants to encourage domestic employment in a country where the ratio of migrants to locals is 70:30. Dependence on oil and the lack of reform efforts. The role of women in a perspective of growth and freedom. 

Milan (AsiaNews) - In 2021, Kuwait deported 18,221 foreign workers - including 11,177 men and 7,044 women - with more than 257,000 migrants having to leave the country permanently. This trend emerged in recent years and accelerated with the Covid-19 pandemic, exploited by the government to encourage a change of employment in favour ofmore or less qualified local labour. This process has involved both the public and private sectors, and has been exacerbated by the collapse in oil revenues and a tax burden that has become unsustainable at times.

The reasons for expulsion include expiry of residence permits, involvement in crimes or violent acts, attempted suicide or violation of the curfew imposed to limit cases of coronavirus. In the middle of last year, the Ministry of the Interior also ordered the expulsion of workers with regular residence permits who were 'guilty' of promoting or participating in protests or who had violated the public interest, security or (Islamic) morals othrough their behaviour. However, the clamp down has resulted in a sudden lack of manpower and risks hindering the growth of the hydrocarbon industry and sectors not directly linked to black gold.

Oil and lack of reform

Located at the top of the Persian Gulf, the small state borders Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and went from being a British protectorate to an independent nation in 1961. Today it is an emirate governed by a constitutional monarchy with an economy largely based on the extraction and export of oil, whose reserves represent 6% of the world total.

In spite of the ample resources deriving from the proceeds of the black gold, the country has not yet been able - as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have  - to diversify its economy. On the contrary, the general private industry sector remains poor, while public employment abounds, accounting for most of the workforce and comprising about 74% of the total number of citizens. Internal tensions within the government, exacerbated in the last two years by the restrictions imposed by Covid-19 and their impact on the oil industry, are among the reasons that have blocked the drive for reform. 

The majority of migrants in the Gulf have work permits ranging from one to three years. They come from South and South-East Asian nations, North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa and most have left their families in their country of origin. Not only men, but also women who find employment as maids or semi-skilled professionals in hospitals (especially nurses), restaurants, offices or security agencies.

Even today, companies impose heavy constraints on economic migrants who want to travel with their families. In these countries, including Kuwait, the main challenge is not the lack of work but the so-called Kafala system, which requires every worker to have a 'sponsor' to obtain a permit for a fixed period of time. This procedure makes migrants legally dependent on others and leaves them prone to abuse (physical and sexual) and violations, arbitrary confiscation of passports, late payment, forced labour and, in the case of domestic workers, forced confinement within the home. 

In Kuwait, they often live in overcrowded facilities and have no access to medical care and assistance. Immigration centres and prisons are used to lock them up in precarious hygienic conditions and, when they lose their protector, they end up being hired by drug traffickers or in the prostitution market; those who try to escape are imprisoned or deported.

Despite this, the economy continues to rely on foreigners to the extent that the government has signed agreements with nations of origin in South and South-East Asia. And sectors that have seen a significant outflow of migrant workers face serious labour shortages. Another significant proportion is in the oil industry, which is beginning to show the first signs of crisis, to the extent that the target of 3.5 million barrels per day (from the current 2.5 million) by 2025 is at risk. 

Then there is the chapter of domestic workers, who currently represent 22.8% of the workforce: in 2021, more than 41,000 of them left Kuwait permanently, leaving gaps that are difficult to fill.

The evolution of the market

The government's policy of "Kuwaitiisation" also involves the choices of entrepreneurs and employers in the private sector, who are called upon to hire fellow citizens at the expense of immigrants. One of the first objectives is to redress the long-standing demographic imbalance, where three million expatriates account for about 70% of the total population.

Locals talso need to be encouraged to accept certain types of employment considered 'inferior' in terms of social status and remuneration. The perks - in terms of salaries and taxation - of civil servants compared to their private sector colleagues are many. In recent months, day care centres for children have sprung up, raising the rank of the operators from domestic servants to educators and pedagogues, making it more attractive to local women. The contribution of women to the world of work remains low and, in general, women receive lower salaries and have lower career prospects than men, especially in the public sector. This makes it essential to open up career opportunities in the private sector.

An easing of social pressure and of the limits imposed by realities in which Islam is in the majority, especially among the Gulf countries, would allow more outlets for the pink universe called to contribute - with a second salary - to the family economy. Kuwaiti women would also be able to fill more roles in the legal, retail and private health care sectors, currently dominated by foreigners.

The consequences would also include a decline in remittances abroad, with more capital being reinvested to support domestic spending and boost the economy. Analysts and experts predict that the government, guided by social and fiscal reasons, will continue with policies aimed at replacing foreigners with locals, trying to reverse the current ratio of immigrants to natives. The forecasts are confirmed by the progressive increase in deportations and the migrant issue as a central theme of domestic policy for the five-year period 2022-2026. 

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