By B Izzak

KUWAIT: The Cabinet has approved a new foreign residency draft law to regulate the stay of millions of expats in the country, which proposes sweeping penalties against visa traders and failure to pay salaries. The new government-proposed residency law will be sent to the National Assembly for debate and approval with the aim to modernize the current law issued 51 years ago.

The main focus of the new residency law is its focus on fighting visa trading and expats working illegally with employers who are not their sponsors, in addition to raising penalties for those who violate the law by overstaying or illegally entering the country. The draft law stipulates a jail term of three years and a fine between KD 5,000 and KD 10,000 for visa traders who facilitate the entry, renew residencies and employ expats illegally for fees. It states that the fine will be charged for every illegal expat, while the punishment will be doubled in case the violator is a civil servant or if it is repeated within five years.

Expat workers who pay money to get a work permit or renew their residencies will receive a one-year jail term and a fine of KD 1,000. The law states that only the public prosecution will investigate such cases. The bill punishes employers who fail to pay wages to expat employees with a two-year jail term and a fine between KD 5,000 and KD 10,000. The same penalty applies for working illegally with other employers.

The bill requires employers to inform authorities if their expat employees leave them or if their residency is cancelled and they do not leave the country. Violators will be fined between KD 600 and KD 2,000. The new bill stipulates to grant 10-year residency to foreign investors, foreigners who own real estate, foreign women divorced from their Kuwaiti husbands and have children, in addition to the husbands and children of Kuwaiti women.

National Assembly Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanem and four MPs - Rakan Al-Nisf, Ahmad Al-Fadhl, Khaled Al-Shatti and Nasser Al-Dousari - meanwhile submitted a draft law calling on the government to set a cap for expats needed by the country within six months and asking surplus workers to leave within five years. The draft law, which comes amid a flurry of proposed bills and measures aimed at significantly reducing the number of foreigners in Kuwait, also calls to set up a solidarity fund for expats to be financed by special fees on a variety of transactions, paid by either the employer or the employee.

The fund will be used to cover airfare for deported expats and their unpaid wages following a final court judgment when the employer refuses or delays payment, and blood money for expat workers who die or sustain any disability during or because of their work duties.

The draft law proposes a KD 5 social solidarity fee to be collected from workers on issuing or transferring their residency visas and on obtaining a driving license or car registration, a KD 3 fee for annual renewal of the above and on flight tickets issued in Kuwait, a KD 1 fee for electricity receipts, first-time issuance and renewal of civil IDs, on the state's annual contributions, donations from Zakat House, NGOs and diplomatic missions and revenues made by investing the solidarity fund's money.

Employers in the private and oil sectors will be committed to paying health insurance for each employee on arrival and prior to getting residency visas. The insurance value will be determined by Civil Service Commission studies, workers' qualifications and specialties and Kuwait's need for them. Companies fully or partially owned by the state will be exempt from this condition.

Local courts will be responsible for reviewing and judging disputes between employers and non-Kuwaiti employees departing the country for good, and in case they leave before a judgment is made, the worker's embassy in Kuwait will appoint a solicitor to represent them. If this is not available, the judge will appoint a lawyer to represent the expat as per article number 26 of law number 42/1964.

The bill excludes some 700,000 domestic helpers, spouses of Kuwaitis and their children, GCC nationals, members of the judiciary and the public prosecution, heads and members of diplomatic missions and their families provided Kuwaiti missions in their countries receive the same treatment, pilots, co-pilots, flight cabin crews and workers on government contracts from the number of expats to be determined by the government.

The government has already submitted its plan on reducing the number of expats. The plan proposes to deport as many as 360,000 expats in the short term and many more in the mid and long term. Seven other bills have been submitted by MPs calling to regulate and reduce the number of expats in the country.

The Assembly will hold a special session today to vote on a no-confidence motion filed by 10 lawmakers against Finance Minister Barrak Al-Sheetan following a grilling last week. Based on announcements by MPs, the minister is expected to survive the motion, but last-minute surprises cannot be ruled out, especially after the leaking of a document claiming that the finance ministry has asked the Civil Service Commission to adopt an array of austerity measures and cut benefits of Kuwaiti employees.

The griller MP Riyadh Al-Adasani has based his grilling on the claim that the minister is behind the austerity measures that the government is likely to take to boost non-oil revenues in the face of the sharp drop in oil income.