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Mass return of Indian expats from Kuwait is a storm in a teacup

Labour market nationalisation drives in West Asian countries started decades ago, but none have achieved set targets — on the contrary, the proportion of expats has increased in this time

April 09, 2021 / 11:52 AM IST
Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

S Irudaya Rajan

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Target 10.7 recognises the role of migration in development and requires member states to facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies. On the ground, however, COVID-19 crisis is seeing countries move in the opposite direction.

The current crisis is seeing a lot countries use it as a pretence to implement stricter visa regimes and border controls, which are pushing helpless migrants back to their countries of origin without salaries and final financial settlements.

The recent announcement of the expat quota Bill approved by the legal and legislative committee of Kuwait National Assembly is a case in point. According to some news reports, Kuwait's Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al Khalid Al Sabah had earlier proposed reducing the number of expats from current 70 percent to 30 percent in Kuwait population. Similarly, Assembly Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanem re-iterated this point by publically announcing that he and a group of lawmakers will submit to the assembly a comprehensive draft law calling for a gradual reduction of expats in Kuwait — from 70 percent to 65 percent next year.

Same Story, Little Changes

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We have seen that whenever a crisis unfolds (global financial crisis, Arab Spring, crash in oil prices and, now, COVID-19), destination countries normally announce several short-, medium- and long-term measures to control immigration or to ‘protect the local workforce’, despite accruing the immense gains of immigration and immigrants in the past.

The same logic has been recently applied in the United States as well by banning crucial F-1, J-1, M-1 and H1B visas for political gains to ensure local and Right-wing support for the forthcoming presidency elections. Thus, the labour market nationalisation drives in West Asian countries are not being implemented for the first time.

Way back in 2001, during my first visit to the United Arab Emirates, while visiting the Indian embassy, an adviser (expatriate) to the UAE government informed us about demographic imbalances and a proposed ‘Emiratization’ policy to fix it.

Saudi Arabia was the first Gulf country to experiment with national employment rules: The first Saudisation quotas were codified in the late 1940s, but were never implemented consistently. A renewed push for quota-based Saudisation was made with Decree 50 of 1995, which stipulated an annual five percent increase in the employment share of Saudis in all companies with more than 20 employees. To discourage expatriates, all Gulf countries announce disincentive programmes — increase in visa fee, visa renewal fee, health insurance, restrictions on family visa and stagnant wages — to name a few.

This, however, did not do much to reduce the expatriate population. In 1975, Saudi Arabia consisted of 87 percent nationals as against 13 percent expatriates. Among the workers, the ratio was 75 percent nationals to 25 percent expatriates. After more than 40 years of implementing these policies and according to the latest available data, expatriates have increased from 13 to 37 percent!

This is true for all the Gulf countries. According to the latest data, 95 percent of workers in Qatar and the UAE are expatriates, followed by 86 percent in Kuwait, 81 percent in Oman, 73 percent in Bahrain and 57 percent in Saudi Arabia.

Depending on native workers to generate income and growth will take at least three generations to come. This leads us to imagine that a similar fate will unfold with the nationalisation drive in Kuwait as well.

Exact Numbers?

Let us come back to expat quota bill of Kuwait. It is unfortunate that the media, both in India and West Asia, stated that over 800,000 Indians may be forced to leave Kuwait. How did they arrive at the 800,000 figure?

According to the population estimates published by the Central Statistics Bureau of Kuwait, the country has a total population of 4.4 million. Among them 3.1 million are expatriates and 1.3 million are locals — accounting for a 70:30 ratio. According to an earlier research paper of mine on impact of global crisis on emigration and remittances in South Asia, Indians account for the highest expatriates in all the Gulf countries, but the actual numbers are not published officially by all Gulf countries.

According to the population of overseas Indians published in the Ministry of External Affairs, the Government of India puts 1,028,274 as Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and another 1,587 as Persons of Indian Origin, totalling 1,029,861 in Kuwait. The Embassy of India in Kuwait put the number of Indian nationals legally residing in Kuwait at over a million.

The Kerala and Tamil Nadu Migration Surveys, conducted by us at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) since 1998, put the number of Keralites and Tamils in Kuwait as 130,000 and 140,000 respectively, and these two states dominate the total number of Indians in Kuwait.

It can be safely estimated that one million in Kuwait is an overestimation, unless we conduct an India Migration Survey to provide reliable estimates of Indians by countries of destination. Even if we agree with the Embassy of India in Kuwait’s estimate, the proportion of Indians in Kuwait is just 23 percent of its total population — which means that even if the cap reduces to 15 percent as the Bill proposes, only 300,000 Indians are likely to return. Thus it is safe to say that there will be no impact on either Indian emigration to Kuwait or decline in remittances.

What this confusion over the numbers and its impact does imply is a certain mismanagement of migration, which has led to an unnecessary panic among Indians.

For those who do eventually have to come back in the short run, the Government of India will have to think of the rehabilitation, re-integration and when the opportunity presents itself, as it will, the tools required to re-migrate safely with the support of the Skill India Mission.

Business As Usual

Once COVID-19 is gone, it will be business as usual. Unfortunately, most of the expatriates concentrate on the 3D jobs — dirty, dangerous and demeaning. These are categories that local nationals are unlikely to step in and take.

In addition, there are wage differentials between public and private sectors, and also between nationals and expatriates. After a raft of drastic public sector salary increases, the da’m al-’amala allowances were almost doubled in early 2013 in Kuwait, reaching 790 Kuwaiti Dinar (KD) ($2,800) per month for an unmarried holder of a bachelor’s degree, and 1,248 KD ($4,400) for a married man with a degree. A high school graduate now receives 557 KD ($2,000). Compare this with how much Indian expatriates are paid. To replace the hardworking Indian with relatively low-wages is easier said than done. To fully replace them will be a herculean task, which I suspect will not so easily come to fruition.

Finally, in 1965, Kuwait nationals accounted for 36 percent of the total population — now it’s 30 percent. It took five decades for a six percent drop—and this gives me confidence that little will change in the near future. In the short run migrants might suffer, but in the long run, they will win.

S Irudaya Rajan is professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala. Views are personal.

Moneycontrol Contributor
Moneycontrol Contributor