The highly modernized, affluent and oil-rich Middle Eastern state of Kuwait has been an expat hotspot for a couple of decades now, mainly because of the excellent career and business opportunities it has to offer. It also happens to be one of the more liberal countries in the Gulf region, similar to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). More than 80% of the workforce in Kuwait is made up of foreigners mainly from India, Egypt, Pakistan, The Philippines, Turkey, Syria and Iran. You will also find fairly big European and North American expat communities in this country. Kuwait’s current population is 4.4 million people and locals make up just 30% of it, at 1.33 million.Up until a few years ago, Kuwait was regarded as one of the best places in the Middle East for expats. However, things have been changing for the last two years and the laws concerning foreign nationals are expected to undergo a number of further revisions. The local authorities are planning to introduce caps that restrict the employment of outsiders, to limit the expat population. Not only are foreigners being discouraged from arriving, but many of the existing foreign residents feel that they have no choice but to return home as the situation becomes unfavorable for them to continue staying in the country. This crisis is mainly a result of the recent changes in healthcare and employment laws for expats.
Employment Law Reforms
Mubrak Al-Hajraf, MP of Kuwait, has asked the government to take certain actions that will reduce the nation’s dependence on expatriate labor, thereby making more jobs available to the locals. He criticized the authorities for recruiting a high number of people from foreign locations, especially at a time when oil-producing countries need to reorganize their labor market, create more jobs and encourage young Kuwaitis to become a part of the private sector. In his opinion, the current situation indicates failure on the part of the government as well as the concerned minister and lack of vision to nationalize career prospects, substituting expats with local citizens.
Hajraf has asked to put an end to chaos at the manpower authority, at the expense of the nation’s reputation. In a statement issued to the local newspaper, The Kuwaiti Times, he stated that expats should not be permitted to transfer their residency visas if their employers respect and adhere to all the provisions in the signed contracts, mainly those which are related to labor, vocational and financial interests. According to a further motion Hajraf will soon put forward to the Kuwaiti parliamentarians, an expat’s right to change employers should be taken away altogether. He believes that this step will enable employers to differentiate between those who come to their country to work seriously and those who are planning to cause trouble by transferring visas according to their wishes. The foreign workforce will no longer be able to purchase visas and engage in freelance jobs.
The current Kuwaiti law has too many loopholes, in Hajraf’s words, such as accepting grievances filed by expats who are not employed by their sponsors. As a result, many of them believe that they can “abscond” and obtain a temporary visa, before canceling the old one, thereby shifting sponsors. Some of them go as far as buying “free” visas and working on their own. He claims that expats have taken complete advantage of the laws that aren’t robust enough, by filing a number of complaints but not showing up for any of the hearings, just so that their visas can be transferred.
Mass Deportation of Expats
The most recent move to restrict the rights of expatriates in Kuwait follows a motion that was brought to the parliament by 5 members, towards the end of December 2016. As reported, its objective was to reduce the number of expats in the country to about 50%. Citing social, economic and security reasons, Kuwaiti officials are planning to deport as many as 1 million foreign workers within the next 10 years, which means at least 100,000 expats per year. This is hardly surprising keeping in mind the fact that 29,000 outsiders had been deported from Kuwait in 2016, at an alarming rate of almost 80 people per day. The reasons for deportation are varied, ranging from minor offenses to serious criminal violations.
A report on a website called Arabian Business stated that some of the deportees spent a month or two in prison because of financial claims and obligations like court hearings. It said that the deportation prison management system usually arranges for the flight tickets for the expats to be deported from travel agencies at the premises.
The report went on to reveal statistics of the 6 nationalities that faced the maximum amount of deportation, constituting about 80% of people who were sent back home. These were:
• Indians – 26%
• Egyptians – 22%
• Filipinos – 13%
• Ethiopians – 13%
• Sri Lankans – 6%
• Bangladeshis – 5%
The plan to decrease the number of expat workers by 10% per year is in line with some of the other Gulf nations. It is believed that similar moves are being considered in Qatar. In Saudi Arabia, a new legislation has been reportedly introduced; according to this, expats and their families will be charged a substantial monthly fee to remain in the country.
The Kuwaiti Times reported that in December 2016, five significant Kuwaiti lawmakers submitted a draft law, proposing a cut in the number of expats in order to reach a demographic balance over a period of five years.
This bill was signed by MPs Oudah Al-Oudah, Omar Al-Tabtabaei, Khalil Abul, Abdulwahab Al-Babtain and Ahmad Al-Fadhl. It calls for the establishment of a higher national committee for the demographic structure, which will be headed by the interior minister of the country. The proposed committee will aim at implementing measures to balance the number of locals and expatriates across Kuwait. One of the members stated that certain expatriates would be exempt from the law. This includes domestic helpers (currently more than 650,000), contract workers that have been recruited for special development projects, and the children of Kuwaiti women (with non-Kuwaiti fathers).
The draft law also stipulates that the size of any foreign community must not go beyond 30% of the total immigrant base in the nation. As per a rough calculation by The Kuwait Times, the local population is expected to reach 1.6 million in the next 5 years. This means that the country will allow no more than 2.3 million outsiders, including the domestic helpers, contract workers and children of Kuwaiti women.
Even if the recruitment of new talent is suspended completely (which is hardly possible), as many as 800,000 immigrants will have to leave the country. When then 30% quota limitation is taken into account, a majority of the cut will be experienced by the Indian (over 900,000 people) and Egyptian (over 600,000 people) communities. Once the law is approved by Kuwait’s National Assembly, accepted by the local government and implemented across the nation, Indians and Egyptians will not be allowed to exceed 500,00 people, which is 30% of the 1.6 million expats. A proposal like this isn’t exactly new since a similar bill was submitted in the previous Assembly too. However, the interior and defense committees never debated or even discussed it.
Healthcare Fee Hike
The standard of healthcare in Kuwait is excellent and is often regarded as being on par with Europe and North America. Public healthcare is available to everyone, including foreigners, for free or at subsidized costs. Waiting lines are almost non-existent and most patients undergo the treatment they require within a matter of days, if not hours. Yet, expats living and working in this country are advised to register for private healthcare insurance.
In another bid to curb the rising number of immigrants and visitors, seeking to take advantage of the nominal healthcare charges in Kuwait, officials are set to introduce a huge hike in prices. According to a new price list made by the health minister, Dr. Jamal Al-Harby, health charges for outsiders are expected to increase by close to 500% in the first quarter of 2017. However, as per the reports in the local news medium, the Arabian News, the fees of medical tests and services provided by the state will still be around 20% less as compared to the private sector.
There will be a five-fold increase in overall healthcare costs for expats and some services may actually cost up to ten-fold more. This comes as a huge blow to the expat community in Kuwait, which represents around two thirds of the country’s population at the moment.
It was reported that a group of local MPs in Kuwait has introduced a move which is aimed at reducing the size of the immigrant population to a huge extent. It includes plans of sending 1 million foreigners back home within the next 10 years and limiting the permissible size of a single community to 30% of the total expat base.
The health minister mentioned to Al Rai, an Arabic news site, that the daily medical service costs are becoming a burden on the general budget of the state, primarily due to the rise in prices of medication and medical equipment. Al-Harby added that any advanced medical exams and nuclear tests will be charged at 50% of the cost in case they are not available in the private sector.
Several facilities in the country are set to implement a revised rate card for different types of treatments. TheraSphere has increased the charges of treatment for a tumor, from Kuwaiti Dinar 100 (US $ 330) to KD 500 (US $ 1,635) for expats residing in the country; this is an increase of 495%. Visitors seeking the same treatment will have to pay a lot more, since the charges for a non-resident will be Kuwaiti Dinar 5000 (US $ 16,350), which is an increase of 4950%.
The hike in the treatment of bone cancer with isotopes is a lot steeper. The charges of this service have gone up from Kuwaiti Dinar 50 (US $ 164) to Kuwaiti Dinar 500 (US $ 1635) for expats and Kuwaiti Dinar 1000 (US $ 3,300) for visitors.
In case of screenings and lab tests like thyroid gland testing, the charges are expected to go up from Kuwaiti Dinar 15 (US $ 50) to Kuwaiti Dinar 40 (US $ 130) for expats. The same services will cost a visitor more than double, at Kuwaiti Dinar 90 (US $ 295). There will be a similar increase in cardiac test fees too, from Kuwaiti Dinar 10 (US $ 33) to Kuwaiti Dinar 50 (US $ 165) for expats and to Kuwaiti Dinar 100 (US $ 330) for visitors. The charges for ischemic heart testing will also go up from Kuwaiti Dinar 30 (US $ 100) to Kuwaiti Dinar 50 (US $ 165) for expats and Kuwaiti Dinar 100 (US $ 330) for other non-residents. Blood plasma test fees will rise from Kuwaiti Dinar 20 (US $ 65) to Kuwaiti Dinar 250 (US $ 820) for expats and Kuwaiti Dinar 470 (US $ 1,540) for visitors.
According to the health minister, the impact of these fee hikes on the limited-income expat groups will be studied once the changes are implemented.
So if you are an expat in Kuwait or are planning to move to this country any time in the near future, look at your long-term security before you take any decision. Think about the changes in employment and healthcare laws as well as the impact they may have on your life. If possible, speak with some of the expats from your country who are already settled in Kuwait to get a better idea of the situation.
Are you an expat in Kuwait? Have you been affected by the changes in healthcare and employment laws? Share your experiences in the comments!