India coronavirus: Kuwait’s new expat bill has Indians worried

Indian citizens queue at Kuwait International Airport Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption There are nearly a million Indian expats in this tiny emirate nestled between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Pratik Desai, a chief executive with engineering giant Larsen and Turbo has been living in Kuwait for the last 25 years.

But his future looks uncertain after a bill to reduce the number of foreign workers in Kuwait has been partially approved.

The bill has been cleared by the legal and legislative committee of the national assembly of Kuwait, but it needs the government’s approval to become a law.

If that happens, Mr Desai and as many as 800,000 Indians could be forced to leave Kuwait. Expats currently form 70% of the Gulf country’s population of four million. The bill aims to bring that number down to 30%.

Indians, who form the largest expat community, are likely to be the worst affected.

Experts say the move seems to have been triggered by a slowdown in Kuwait’s economy and a rising demand for jobs among locals.

According to local media, Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah said the high number of foreign workers was a “big imbalance”, adding that “we have a future challenge to address this imbalance”.

Apart from Indians, expats from Pakistan, Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Egypt will also be affected.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption India received nearly $4.6 billion in remittances from Kuwait in 2017

The Indian government says it has already initiated discussions with Kuwait about the bill.

“The Indian community is well-regarded in Kuwait and elsewhere in the Gulf region and their contributions are well recognised. We have shared our expectations and Kuwait’s decision will take that into account,” said Anurag Srivastava, India’s foreign ministry spokesperson.

Mr Desai says it’s not just about losing a job, but having to relocate to India.

“When you live in one place for so long, you develop an emotional attachment,” he says. “It will affect me emotionally more than financially.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nearly 300,000 Indians work in Kuwait’s domestic sector

Kuwait is also one of the top sources of foreign remittances for India. Indians living there sent nearly $4.6bn in remittances in 2017, according to Pew Research Centre data.

Nearly 300,000 Indians work in the country’s domestic sector as drivers, cooks and caretakers. And many say that it will not be easy to fill these vacancies locally.

Kuwait’s decision appears to have been sparked by a decline in global crude oil prices, which has severely impacted its oil-dependent economy.

For now, the bill proposal has been sent to another committee to create a comprehensive plan. Kuwait’s assembly is also awaiting the government’s opinion on the issue, Kuwait Times, an English-language daily newspaper in the Arabian Gulf region, reported.

But will this become a law? Experts are sceptical.

“Right from 1972 when Indians have been going to Kuwait, we have heard this so many times – [that] whenever there is a fall in oil prices, they try to trim the expatriate numbers. Indians, being in large numbers, become the headline.” Dr A K Pasha, professor at the Centre for West Asian Studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told the BBC.

Dr Pasha adds that Indians have contributed immensely in building Kuwait’s infrastructure and cannot be thrown out.

“Without expatriates, they will not be able to sustain the kind of life the locals have been leading because many of the works which expats do, the locals are unwilling or reluctant to do.”

Dr Pasha believes that if foreign workers leave, the expansion of infrastructure, such as housing projects, will slow down given the fall in oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic.

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Media captionIndian entrepreneurs are changing the perception of their communities

“Non-skilled labour will be affected to a certain extent. But they will still be needed on a long-term basis to sustain and maintain the infrastructure,” he says.

Others also believe that drastically cutting the number of expats is not practical.

“It is practically impossible to work with just 200,000 Indians here and send 800,000 home,” Kaizar Shakir, a chartered accountant who works with an architectural engineering firm in Kuwait, told the BBC.

“I don’t think this bill will be implemented. The Kuwait government is very sensitive about Indians and will not ask them to leave.”

But other experts believe that the government is under pressure amid rising unemployment.

There there are Kuwaitis who study abroad, but now want to come back to their country to work.

And that puts skilled jobs at risk too, says Brian Thomas, an Indian expat accountant in Kuwait.

“If [Kuwaiti graduates] can’t find work here, then where else?” he says.

“They only want white-collar jobs. You’ll mostly never find a Kuwaiti working as a technician. I am working in finance. My job is more at risk,” he says.