An Africa Business Community
Expatriates struggle to make
ends meet as hardship bites
By Chidi Emmanuel
It is always a solemn moment whenever Tina comes home and doesn't see her six-year-old daughter Rosaline. "Life without her is just empty," she said as she narrated her ordeal. According to Tina, life went from bad to worse when her husband lost his well-paid job last year. "Things became very hard for us. We could neither pay Rosie's school fees nor get her a nanny. So we decided to send her to my mother in Ghana. My husband is just managing as a sales representative and I am working in a salon. To keep Rosie here (in Kuwait), we need at least a studio apartment, an affordable school for her, renew her residency, etc. These are luxuries we cannot afford right now. I miss her a lot," Tina lamented.
In spite of the financial opportunities of living in Kuwait, foreign workers are struggling to cope with the high cost of living. Some expats are seeking ways to readjust to the harsh realities. These include moving to smaller apartments, sharing apartments, sending their families home and other cost-cutting measures. Another area that people find difficult are expenses related to raising children, as the overall cost of bringing up a child gets higher and higher every day.
With inflation at its highest level, driven primarily by rising housing and utility costs, a lot of expats said they spend more on accommodation and groceries these days. From Fahaheel to Salmiya, there seems to be an unusual trend as most newly-completed apartment buildings remain empty. In some buildings in Maboula and Sabah Al-Salem, caretakers (haris) are offering one month's rent free in a bid to woo tenants. "I got a good bargain. At least the haris waived a month's rent (KD 250) for me - that's why we moved to Maboula," said Ruth Kadri, another Ghanaian expat.
As companies struggle with slower business and authorities impose more fees on foreigners, Kuwait's economy is losing some of its luster for expats who once flocked to the country. According to a recent report, the number of foreign workers dropped by around 0.3 percent in recent months. The good times for foreign workers in Kuwait, who for decades lived tax-free amid hugely subsidized utilities, may well and truly be over. The government has increased healthcare costs for expatriates. Unlike in the past, the health ministry is now passing the high costs of medical operations, equipment, medicines, laboratories and various medical supplies to expat patients.
Public hospitals and polyclinics in Kuwait are now collecting increased fees for services offered to expatriates. The new fees include KD 5 for visiting the emergency department at the general hospital; KD 10 for visiting outpatient clinics; KD 10 per day for inpatients; KD 30 for a stay in the intensive care unit (ICU); KD 50 for a private room and KD 200 as deposit, etc. As for maternity cases, KD 10 will be collected from patients per visit, in addition to KD 50 for a normal delivery.
A tax-free income is one of the key benefits of living and working in Kuwait, but with changing financial circumstances, some foreign workers have decided to leave Kuwait for good. Expatriate salaries and benefits used to allow people to live a luxurious life and still save. But over the past few years, spikes in costs have taken away the feel-good factor from their lives.
Adams has sent his family back to Canada. "Things are not the same anymore here. I really can't cope with the high cost of living here," he said during a sendoff party his friends organized for him. "First, I had to move from a three-bedroom to a two-bedroom and eventually to a one-bedroom apartment, but still there are school fees and medical bills to pay, which have skyrocketed over the last few years. At this point, I couldn't manage it anymore, so I had to let them go," he said in dismay.
Most expats in Kuwait are now forced to tighten their budgets as prices of commodities, medical fees, etc have gone up, with core living expenses such as housing, education, medical expenses and transportation fees showing no sign of going down. Eighteen years ago, Khalil Faisal left his family in Bangladesh to move to Kuwait. "My salary of KD 120 remained the same. I could manage then, but I can't now because of the high cost of living. It is better for me to be with my family than to waste my whole life here," he said before he left Kuwait for good a few months ago.
Another family forced out due to the financial crisis was of Ahmed Ibrahim. Just like Khalil, Ahmed said he could hardly save any money in the past three years. He had no other option than to relocate his family (wife and two teenage children) to Egypt, where he plans to open a business. "At least I can afford to pay the children's school fees in Egypt," he said.
Recent months have seen a surge in layoffs as companies cut costs. "I was told to quit as part of cost-cutting measures. I was a longtime employee of the company." These are the words of Indian expat Sachin Sahaj, one among a number of expats who had their employment terminated last month.
According to recent reports, work contracts of 3,140 non-Kuwaitis serving in the public sector have been cancelled in recent months, Chairman of the Civil Service Commission (CSC) Ahmad Al-Jassar said. These contracts have been invalidated as part of the state's policy of replacing expatriates with nationals in the government sector. The dismissed personnel served in various ministries, government departments and independent bodies. Jassar affirmed that these workers have been laid off in line with the state's policy of Kuwaitizing jobs in the sector, as stipulated by CSC decision 11/2017, which exempted jobs in health sector.