KUWAIT (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 offences, 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.
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 offences 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.
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 licence, 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.”
Editing by Andrew Torchia