Kuwait plans to cut 100,000 foreign workers a year for 10 years

The move, slated to start next month, is to reduce dependence on the 1.8 million expatriates who currently work in Kuwait, many of them in unskilled or service positions. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

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Kuwait plans to cut the number of foreign workers by 100,000 every year for the next decade, reducing its expatriate population by more than half.

The move, slated to start next month, would reduce the dependence on the 1.8 million expatriates who currently work in Kuwait, many of them in unskilled or service positions.

Kuawait's social affairs and labour minister, Thekra Al Rasheedi, said her office would stop approving invitations for all foreign workers from April 1.

"The ministry will take decisions and measures ... aimed at reducing the number of expatriate workers by 100,000 every year for 10 years to reach one million," the minister told the official Kuna news agency yesterday.

"It's part of the ministry's efforts to regulate the labour market, curb the phenomenon of marginal labour and restore the demographic equilibrium of the country."

Kuwait, a country of 2.6 million, has relied on foreign labour for decades, particularly in the private sector. Fifty-five per cent of the population is Asian, and Kuwait employs 600,000 domestic workers alone. Eighty 80 per cent of the 350,000-strong Kuwaiti workforce has government jobs, where salaries tend to be higher.

The expatriate population has become an issue recently amid rising public criticism of the country's economic development. Kuwait's wage and subsidy bill is the largest part of its national budget, and critics have accused expatriates of being a drain on government finances.

Last week, members of parliament proposed withdrawing subsidies and imposing a value-added tax on consumption by expatriate workers, many of whom earn meagre wages.

Kuwait's energy, sold at a fixed price equivalent to roughly 1 US cent per kilowatt hour is the cheapest in the world and the subsidy costs the government an estimated 3 billion Kuwaiti dinars (Dh38.7bn) per year, the local press reported.

Foreign labour is also a charged topic in part because many associate it with Kuwait's more than 100,000 stateless residents, known as the bidoon. Although many have lived in Kuwait for generations, they lack access to even basic services such as education and the ability to take on official work.

Many bidoon say their predominantly Bedouin families simply did not know to register for citizenship in Kuwait City at the time of independence. But others have accused some members of the community of hiding passports from other countries or seeking to take advantage of Kuwait's generous welfare state by becoming nationals.

Kuwait's parliament yesterday voted overwhelmingly in favour of a bill that would naturalise up to 4,000 residents, the majority of whom should be bidoon. The government has previously said that up to 34,000 bidoon could qualify for citizenship, which would qualify them for social benefits and services.

A government commission dealing with the issue has repeatedly promised to work towards more naturalisations, but many bidoon argue the process is too slow and limited. Bidoon activists have staged demonstrations and protest for the past two years calling for a path to citizenship.

"Today, we have laid down a road map to resolve the crisis of bidoons ... who are suffering and being deprived" said MP Khaled Al Adwah after yesterday's parliamentary vote.

* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse

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