May 09 2013

Fear grips Kuwait expats as crackdown intensifies - Businesses feel the pinch - Illegal residents go into hiding

KUWAIT: A growing number of expatriates in Kuwait appear jittery today after the government intensified its crackdown on foreign workers even as many in the marginal labor sector have reportedly gone into 'hiding' to avoid being caught or deported. Interestingly, motorists in Kuwait began to breathe a sigh of relief as the traffic on Kuwait roads, especially in peak hours, has become more regulated as a result of the campaign by the traffic department. "No doubt, there is a daunting fear among expatriates today, especially in the unskilled labor sector.

I think the fear is justifiable considering the way the government has gone about it to drive the illegal residents out of the country," a university professor told Friday Times on condition of anonymity. Expatriates in Kuwait make up about two-thirds of the country's population which is numbering around 3.8 million.

According to the statistics issued by the director general of immigration for 2012, there are around 93,000 illegal residents in Kuwait. Out of these, 38,000 are domestic workers. "We are worried. Two of my friends have been deported last week. Tomorrow it can happen to me also," said Majeed, an Asian taxi driver, who believes that the authorities had been too harsh on his friends.

While Majeed echoes the sentiment of many other Asian taxi drivers, his words also reflect the fear that has gripped the foreign workers in the country. Commenting on the ongoing traffic campaign, Boushra Mohammad Al-Barqawi, a Kuwaiti teacher in a bilingual school, told Friday Times, "It has two aspects. On the one hand, the people of Kuwait have to be safe and with the current road rash nobody is. It looks like there is car race everywhere including school zones.

Regulations on who gets a driving license or who loses it must be fair and clear and applied to all, be it citizens or expatriates. All have equal rights to drive. Terms and conditions only for expatriates make them nervous and they don't feel secure," she pointed out.

The growing feeling of uneasiness and fear among the expat population can be very well gauged by the fact that there is a sharp drop in peak-hour traffic on Kuwait motorways. At the same time, many office-goers admit that the crackdown has become a blessing in disguise as it has helped ease traffic congestion on roads. "Kuwait roads look better now, after the government action.

I think once the campaign is over, there will be better traffic flow on the roads," said Ranith Abraham, a sales executive working in an automobile showroom in Shuwaikh. Many others who shared Ranjith's view feel that the campaign would go a long way in regulating the labor market. "It is imperative to stamp out illegal residents. In fact, their presence will only jeopardize the position of other legitimate foreign workers in the country," said Stanley D'Souza, an Indian expat, who works in Kuwait City.

The Kuwait government has initiated several measures including suspension of issuing new work permits to reduce the number of expatriates by 100,000 every year over the next ten years. Many observe that some of these measures taken by the government to balance the demographics of the country are unprecedented, especially the indiscriminate rounding up of traffic violators and their immediate deportation, sending shockwaves across the foreign population in the country. "We get lesser customers these days. People are scared of police checking," said Rajamani, an Indian taxi driver.

He also admits that taxi drivers would try to avoid certain 'vulnerable locations' such as Shuwaikh, Mirqab, Hasawi, Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh, Sulaibiya etc when they engage passengers. "I think most of those people without proper residency status would have already gone into hiding. They will resurface only when things get a little bit better," commented Fakruddeen Ali, an Indian engineer. While some opine that the measures will help the country purge illegal residents and fake manpower recruiting agents and streamline the labor market, many think that the random raids and deportation will only damage the reputation and goodwill of the country. "It is a two-pronged strategy. Number one, the aggressive crackdown you see around you today. Number two is the slew of new measures that are proposed to force the expatriates out of the country.

If the new rules come into force, many of the middle class expat families will not be able to balance their family budgets, compelling them to leave the country," the professor explained. The new laws that target expats under consideration include restrictions in healthcare services and scrapping of subsidies for services such as water, electricity and gas. There is also a growing fear that visas of many workers will not be renewed on expiry.

While authorities insist that the measures are part of the government's efforts to regulate the labor market, especially the marginal labor, many small and medium businesses in the private sector are already worried about the cascading effect of the new measures on their businesses. Many sales executives and shop-keepers admit that there is a significant drop in their businesses in the last few weeks since people tend to avoid public places in fear of police crackdown. "Our sales have fallen at least by 10 percent in April over March," said Imthias Hussain, a sales manager working at a department store in Farwaniya.

According to him businesses are hurt because people do not frequent shopping malls or supermarkets as they did in the past. "Not because all are illegal residents or traffic violators. People want to avoid police questioning and harassment," said Shajahan, a salesman with a well-known supermarket in Shuwaikh.

Many small and medium businesses are already feeling the pinch of labor shortage after several of their workers failed to report to work due to fear of arrest and subsequent deportation as they are not permitted to work with anyone other than their sponsors. Grocery shops, restaurants, bakeries, textile shops, beauty salons, transportation services et al bear the brunt of the staff shortage.

Several sub-contracting companies report that they find it difficult to supply unskilled workers to various construction and industrial jobs. Similarly, many report shortage of housemaids after the authorities intensified checking in residential areas. "In a way, it is good if the crackdown helps the country clear of illegal residents.

The government must also target visa traders and fake recruitment companies," said Valero Fernandez, an executive with a travel agency in Kuwait city. His words underscore the importance of curbing the mushrooming of illegal manpower companies in Kuwait that continue to recruit and cheat hundreds of job-seekers, especially from Asian countries every year with the help of their 'agent counterparts' in those countries.

However, many people view that the government is a little harsh on people. "No doubt the illegal residents and law violators must be penalized. But every day we hear different stories... stories of detention, deportation and all. I don't think it is a good thing," said Yusuf, a Syrian taxi driver. Al- Barqawi, expressing a balanced view of the situation commented that the current crackdown does not reflect the real image of the country. "Laws must be for everyone, it is not right to punish some people by deporting them," Al-Barqawi added.

© Kuwait Times 2013

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