Migrants in Kuwaiti Parliament: Problems, not Workers

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Dec 5 2016

Kuwait’s parliament plays a key role in blocking rights of non-citizens, either through enacting discriminatory legislation, supporting ministerial decrees that violate expatriate rights, and even refusing to uphold judicial decisions in their favor. Kuwaiti officials and parliamentarians share a similar discourse: the Minister of Education even said expats should be grateful, as they enjoy better salaries than others in the region, and that they should be mindful of the country’s financial situation. It’s of course not acknowledged that Kuwait, like the rest of the GCC, desperately needs to bring in foreign teachers to uphold its education system.

Last week, Kuwait’s new parliament was elected. Migrant-Rights.org kept an eye on candidates whose campaigns focused on  migrants. Unfortunately and expectedly, candidates continued the xenophobic narrative on migration, and sought to deal with expats as “problems”. One elected candidate, Ahmad al-Fadil, who is praised as a voice of the younger and liberal generation, was no different. He blamed expatriates for both taking the jobs of Kuwaitis and for the country’s “bad level of education.” He cited a “UN report that ranks Kuwait as the worst when it comes to expat teachers,”  – a report MR has not been able to find.

Ali al-Khamis, a candidate who was not elected, said a top priority for him is the Kuwaitization of jobs: “all those young Kuwaitis waiting to be hired in the public sector should immediately take over the jobs of expats.” In the same electoral district, candidate Hamad al-Tuwaijri said public hospitals should only be for citizens, while expats should using private health facilities. al-Tuwaijri does not seem to read newspapers, because the country has indeed adapted this segregation plan.

Not only candidates singled out expatriates in this election; the Oil Workers Union, for example, launched a campaign encouraging candidates to adopt their agenda which includes “the hiring of more Kuwaitis, instead of the thousands of expats hired over past decades.”

Some  candidates like Hussein Faridoon,  who earned few votes,  campaigned for the the rights of expats. Faridoon described the segregation of health services in the country as “discrimination based on citizenship.” He also called for 10-15% salary increase for expats after 5 years of work and the option to sponsor oneself after 10 years in the country. Another unsuccessful candidate was Mahmoud Dashti, a doctor, who had expressed his objection to the segregation policy.  

Kuwaiti economist Mohammed Ramadan wrote a column analyzing how candidates talk about expatriate workers.

“Expats make 70% of the population, 23 expats for each 10 Kuwaitis, but no interest in them in this elections.”

Ramadan said candidates only recycled populist, ill-thought out  calls to reduce  expat population, and impose more fees and fines on expats, limiting years of residency, while devaluing the skills  and contributions of migrants in Kuwait.

Ramadan reminds Kuwaitis that they recruit 20% of expats workers in their homes [as domestic workers]. “They teach our students and take care of the sick. They also comprise 1.2 million of the private sector, which we’re trying to support.” He notes that limiting the number of years an expatriate can work in Kuwait is counterproductive, as the country needs their accumulative experience. Increasing fees and fines is not a good idea either, he contends, as many workers already earn low wages. Instead, the country should encourage them to spend money and invest in Kuwait,  by ensuring they have good living conditions.

One newspaper asked a few expatriates what they expected from parliament members, finding that expats are “absent from election programs.” Several expats complained about the healthcare issue, the fact that the cost of insurance will increase, while the quality of services will decrease. One expat said he is a father of four children who has lived in the country for two decades. He pays 160 KWD a year for their insurance, mandatory for residency renewal, but he will now pay 520 KWD when the cost of insurance increases. Another interviewee said the country does not offer expats good health care options,  despite forcing them to buy insurance. For example, annual insurance does not cover many many medication and testing.

Expats also complained about the Kafala system, higher living costs, salaries and absent or stagnant benefits. Some expats discussed the private schools where their children study;  GCC states do not allow, or heavily restrict, expat registration in public schools, so they have to enroll their children in expensive private schools. Expats talked about increasing tuition and study costs “uniforms, textbooks, activities.” When they complain to the Ministry of Education, officials tell them pricing is up to schools to decide.

Despite the fact that expatriates are in the majority, their needs are not considered or represented by Kuwait’s parliament members and officials. The vilification and discrimination against migrant workers is a global phenomenon, but it is particularly acute given Kuwait’s demography. Politicians shared discourse  blames for the current economic crisis, which is in fact due to the government’s mismanagement of funds, and over 30 years of failed nationalization efforts. Instead of working to fix Kuwait’s vulnerable economic system, Parliamentarians focus their efforts on privileging citizens to win seats, to the ultimate detriment of Kuwaitis and expats alike.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East