Migrant Workers in Kuwait: Charting a Path Forward

By Zaya Stas

Kuwait has become a prominent destination for migrant workers globally, experiencing a substantial increase in their numbers in recent years. The Gulf countries alone have one of the highest proportions of migrant workers, with 35 million foreign workers relative to the local workforce worldwide. Many of these individuals find themselves employed in construction, hospitality, and domestic work due to lacking skills. While migrant workers contribute significantly to their host countries’ development and provide crucial remittances to their families and communities, they face numerous challenges in attaining decent working conditions. This blog will discuss the historical factors and status of migrant workers in Kuwait.

The discovery of oil fields in the 1930s led to significant changes in Kuwait, with the country becoming the largest exporter of oil in the Gulf region by 1952. This newfound wealth fueled infrastructure development and created a need for international labour. Kuwait’s socio-economic and political progress became closely intertwined with its oil industry, propelling it from a nation of little significance to a significant player in regional and international affairs. Oil became a powerful tool in the area due to the high quality of oil reserves in Kuwait, making it a valuable commodity in the global market. In addition, Kuwait gained the ability to influence global energy markets. With the redistribution of oil revenues, the Kuwaiti government provided its citizens new job opportunities, free healthcare, and modern housing. Labour immigrants were called upon to contribute to the national economy and infrastructure to support the country’s development. In 1948, the first and largest group of migrants in Kuwait were Palestinians, driven by the Israeli occupation of Palestine. These Palestinian workers played a crucial role in developing the healthcare and education sectors. Over time, the Palestinian migrant population grew, and by the late 1980s, they made up half of the Arab expatriate community in Kuwait. Another significant migrant group in Kuwait was from Jordan, which saw an increase in population after the annexation of the West Bank in 1950. However, during the Gulf War in 1990, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, around 400,000 Arab migrant workers were forced to seek refuge outside Kuwait. Jordanians and Palestinians faced accusations of supporting Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, leading to their expulsion from Kuwait. Approximately 350,000 Jordanians and Palestinians were compelled to leave and seek refuge abroad. Between 1965 and 1989, Arab migrant workers constituted Kuwait’s most prominent foreign community, comprising 50 to 65% of the labour force. However, following the “Arab Spring” uprising and other political events, the Kuwaiti government deemed the Jordanian, Palestinian, and Iraqi populations too politically involved. As a result, from 1985 onward, the Kuwaiti government began replacing Arab migrant workers with expatriates from Asian countries.

In order to strike a balance between its small population and high per capita income, the Kuwaiti government strategically decided to open its doors to South Asian labour, particularly after the replacement of Arab expatriates. Concurrently, Kuwaiti families increasingly started seeking the assistance of domestic workers to support them in household tasks. This shift in demand led to a significant portion of the migrant workforce in Kuwait being comprised of female domestic workers. By the end of 2022, the total number of female domestic workers in Kuwait reached a staggering 753,000. Various push factors contribute to people leaving their home countries and seeking opportunities elsewhere, such as war, lack of job prospects, and limited access to education. For Indian migrant workers, the primary push factor is the lack of job opportunities in their densely populated country, where per capita income is relatively low. This situation can be attributed to various factors, including historical events such as India’s independence from British colonial rule and the impact of prolonged conflicts. These events have shaped the country’s socio-economic landscape, limiting employment prospects and income disparities. The pull factors that attract them to Kuwait include the country’s high per capita income and abundant job market, which offer the potential for increased earnings. As of 2022, Indian migrant workers constitute approximately 24% of the labour force in Kuwait. Moreover, in 2021 There is a noticeable increase in domestic labour from India and the Philippines as it accounts for 68.5% of the domestic labour market, according to the Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI). However, over the past decade, there has been a decline in the average salary for South Asian migrant workers, while Kuwaiti citizens have experienced an increase in average salaries. This decrease in South Asian workers’ average wages can be attributed to their concentration in lower-paying occupations. Kuwait’s economy has long relied on foreign labour, but the growing population of expatriates and the scarcity of Kuwaitis in the labour market have raised concerns for the government. Consequently, the Kuwaiti government has been deporting expatriates from various nationalities each year. In 2023 alone, over 30,000 expats were deported in the first quarter, including individuals from countries such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Egypt.

In conclusion, Kuwait has seen a significant rise in migrant workers, with a high proportion relative to the local workforce. From historical factors involving the oil industry’s development and recruitment of labour from various countries to the status of migrant workers in sectors such as construction, hospitality, and domestic work and the challenges they face, it is evident that migrant labour plays a vital role in the region’s development. Future predictions indicate evolving dynamics influenced by economic fluctuations, technological advancements, and changing government policies. Balancing the benefits of migrant labour with the need for fair treatment and improved working conditions remains a crucial task for Kuwait.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Canada Kuwait Aid Network.”

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