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2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - Kuwait

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 6 June 2012
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - Kuwait, 6 June 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fd889415.html [accessed 21 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 2,700,000
Capital: Kuwait

ILO Core Conventions Ratified:

29 (Forced Labour (1930))
87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (1948))
98 (Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining (1949))
105 (Abolition of Forced Labour (1957))
111 (Discrimination in Employment and Occupation (1958))
138 (Minimum Age for Employment (1973))
182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999))

Reported Violations – 2012

Murders: none reported
Attempted Murders: none reported
Threats: none reported
Injuries: none reported
Arrests: none reported
Imprisonments: none reported
Dismissals: none reported

Documented violations – actual number of cases may be higher

Introduction

Although workers are legally permitted to join unions, less than 5% of the labour force is unionised. There is only one trade union federation allowed by law and the right to strike is severely limited. In May 2010, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Kuwait promised to establish an independent human rights institution but has reportedly made little concrete progress.

Background

Kuwait is one of the richest Arab states, and some 68% of its population are expatriate workers. Kuwait's last parliamentary elections in May 2009 were the result of an internal dispute between opposition parties and the government after the incumbent government resigned in order to avoid being questioned over alleged misuse of public funds. Four female members were elected. In April 2010 the authorities, reportedly worried about possible democratic change in Egypt by the "National Association for Change", deported 17 Egyptians for trying to organise a local branch in Kuwait. There has also been increasing civil violence with security forces pitted against Islamist militants. Despite a relatively active parliament and the permission of open criticism, critics claim the government and ruling party are allowing extensive corruption and crushing political dissent.

Protests: A series of protests took place in Kuwait in the spring and November despite repeated threats of reprisals. Protests were limited in comparison to nearby states in North Africa. On 18 February at least 30 people were injured during clashes between security forces and stateless Arab Bidun (Bedoon) people. Fifty people were arrested while a similar protest in a nearby village drew 80 protesters. The stateless Arabs who are long-time residents of Kuwait were demanding citizenship, free education, free health care and jobs, benefits available to Kuwaiti nationals which they have long been denied. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters after their demonstrations turned violent. The authorities issued statements threatening deportation for any Bidun – or their family members – caught demonstrating. Dozens of activists were arrested for crimes of 'illegal assembly and intent to commit criminal acts'. By the end of the year a total of 52 Bidun were on trial and another 32 were under investigation.

In June 2011, hundreds of people marched in an anti-government protest, calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister. In the months that followed, parliament stepped up calls for reform over allegations of mismanagement of public funds, corruption and inefficiency. In September, many thousands marched again. In October, a wave of strikes began which culminated in a major protest on 20 October in Kuwait city. In response a security crackdown was threatened and a parliamentary committee for reform was formed. In November, the Prime Minister and his cabinet submitted their resignation before another mass protest. Also in November, protesters calling for political reforms briefly occupied the Parliament buildings after police violently dispersed a march. The demonstrators were calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister (and royal family member) Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad Al-Sabah amid attempts by opposition MPs to bring the Prime Minister in for questioning over claims that officials transferred state funds to accounts abroad. After the protests, the Interior Ministry and security forces were asked to take "all necessary measures to combat any actions that might beset the country's security". This could include legal action against the protesters who entered parliament and possible crackdowns on opposition media for instigation. In December the Emir dissolved parliament and set elections for February 2012.

Trade union rights in law

A new Labour Code regulating work in the private sector was enacted in 2010, but trade union rights are still heavily restricted. While the legislation now allows for trade union pluralism at the grassroots level, only one general union is permitted, the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF). Only Kuwaiti workers enjoy the right to join a trade union and to participate in its activities. Government employees are as stated excluded from the scope of the Labour Code, which is also the case for domestic workers. Furthermore, the establishment of a trade union is subject to certification by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, however if the Minister fails to respond within 15 days the union shall be deemed to exist. Workers cannot be dismissed on the basis of their trade union activities, but no protection is guaranteed against other forms of anti-union discrimination or interference by employers or the authorities.

Trade unions are not allowed to engage in political activity, and are also prohibited from investing and from receiving donations without approval by the Ministry. In the event of a collective dispute, a long dispute resolution procedure – lasting up to two months – must be exhausted before lawful strike action can be taken. There is, however, no protection for strikers against retribution by the state. Finally, the courts can dissolve any union that violates the labour laws or that threatens public order and morality.

Link to additional detailed information regarding the legislation on the ITUC website here

In practice

Collective bargaining rarely practised: Collective bargaining is rarely practised in the public sector. Although the law allows for direct negotiations between employers and workers or workers' representatives in the private sector, the sector is not organised.

Organising very restricted: The single trade union system continues to exist. However, despite the monopoly imposed by law, some trade unions operate outside the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF), such as the Bank Workers' Union and the Kuwait Airways Workers' Union.

Strikes occur despite restrictions – government bans strikes:

Strikes are increasing despite being only officially allowed in the private sector, which is not organised, is very small and is mostly composed of some 1.7 million foreigners. 2011 saw an unprecedented wave of strikes and industrial action in the public sector, which employs close to 80% of the 360,000-strong workforce of Kuwaiti nationals after state oil sector workers managed to negotiate pay rises of up to 66% from the state. Since then, employees of several ministries and public sector institutions have lobbied for better salaries and benefits – customs officials, port workers, and staff at the Ministries of the Interior, Health and Social Affairs and Labour all started mass walkouts in protest against poor salaries and benefits. The strike action also affected the Kuwait airlines where 5,000 employees are facing a proposed privatisation process. Although the Kuwaiti employees were planning strike action, foreign employees were being advised to continue working as they are more vulnerable to being sacked without notice during a strike.

In September, around 850 Kuwaiti port workers began daily two hour strikes over wages, disrupting operations at three commercial ports.

On 25 October the government agreed to raise wages following a short strike organised by the 4,000-strong KAC Workers Union that grounded half of the airline's fleet. In early October, workers from the Kuwait Stock Exchange called off a planned 19 October strike after reaching an agreement with the government over money owed. The dispute centered on bonus payments and the impending transfer of employees from the bourse to a newly formed Capital Markets Authority (CMA). The Kuwait University's academic society also planned a demonstration on 26 October over salary increases.

Government officials in Kuwait have repeatedly told striking workers they would not consider any demands while walkouts are taking place. In October, the government announced it was planning a new law which would punish striking civil servants and restrict strike action. In response to the strike wave on 17 October the Foreign Minister tendered his resignation, while at least one other Minister was believed to be considering resigning as well. On 19 December the Kuwait Trade Union Federation held a demonstration outside the Civil Service Ministry following a statement by Justice Minister Ahmed Al Mulaifi that strikes are prohibited and that international conventions which guarantee workers' rights are not applicable to him. The statement was in response to strike action being undertaken by employees in the Justice Ministry itself. The workers had also complained over pressure on non-qualified expatriates to work in the ministry instead of citizens as well as issues relating to retirement. Unionists from the Oil Workers' Union and Kuwait Oil Tankers Workers' Union also attended the protests to show solidarity.

Migrant domestic workers abused:

There are around 650 – 700,000 migrant domestic workers in Kuwait, the majority of them females from South East Asia. Reports of widespread abuse and ill treatment continue to emerge regularly, as do reports of the failings of the Kuwait authorities to properly investigate, monitor and address the issues. Foreign domestic workers, along with local domestic workers and drivers are excluded from the labour law and are vulnerable to abuse because of the lack of effective legal remedies. In 2011, some 300 Sri Lankan Foreign domestic workers sought refuge in the Sri Lankan Embassy over disputes with employers and were expected to leave the country once their disputes with their sponsors are settled and obtained their passports and air tickets.

In 2009, embassies in Kuwait received more than 10,000 complaints from domestic workers about unpaid wages, long working hours and physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Many domestic workers in Kuwait who try to escape abusive employers face criminal charges for "absconding" and in most cases are deported even if they have been abused and seek redress. Kuwait, which has the highest ratio of domestic workers to citizens in the Middle East, announced on 26 September 2010, that it would abolish the sponsorship system in February 2011, and replace the employer-based system with a government-administered recruitment authority. No details were given on what legal protections would be added for migrant workers. However, the new Labour Code does ban companies in the private sector and oil sector from holding workers' passports and stipulates fines for such behaviour. The new law excluded domestic workers as does the abolition of the sponsorship system.

In July, a report from the UN called for urgent improvements in the promotion and protection of the rights of foreign domestic workers in Kuwait. The report stated that many domestic workers complain of confinement to the house, long working hours without rest, months or years of unpaid wages and sometimes verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Most employers retain passports and other documentation. Some efforts had been made by the Ministry of the Interior to deal with forced labour and trafficking, including an increase in efforts to prosecute, punish, and stringently sentence traffickers, particularly sponsors who force domestic workers into involuntary servitude and the shutting down of fraudulent labour recruiting agencies, as well as the termination of licences for recruiting companies that did not meet regulations set in the February 2010 Private Sector Labour Law. However, many serious issues remain.

On 10 March, three Kuwaiti sponsors and two policemen tortured to death an unidentified Asian man. The Kuwaiti sponsors captured and "mercilessly beat" the man and then handed him over to the police, accusing him of setting fire to and robbing their farms. During his "interrogation" by the police, the worker collapsed and died. The Kuwaiti men and the policemen are being questioned by police about the incident. On the same day an unidentified traffic officer locked an Asian migrant man for four hours inside his patrol car, badly beating him and 'throwing' him on the street. In another case an Indonesian domestic worker was found having jumped to her death from a building with cigarette burns on her body. According to the police, the woman jumped from the sixth floor after suffering sexual and physical at the hands of two Kuwaiti brothers. Reports of similar cases of abuse from both employers and police are common, especially concerning foreign domestic workers from south Asia and Ethiopia. In June, Cambodian recruitment agencies put a ban in place on the potential sending of domestic workers to Kuwait after numerous complaints of abuse.

Migrant workers given 'amnesty' as employers retain passports: In an attempt to regularise the migrant worker sector, an amnesty was called and workers were given from March to June 2011 to regularise their employment or leave Kuwait. Several thousand workers including Sri Lankan migrant workers are expected to lose their jobs. According to the Sri Lankan mission in Kuwait, more than 10,000 Sri Lankan migrant workers are alleged to be illegal, as they have changed their work places, leaving their original work sponsors. Under Kuwait law, migrant workers are tied to their original sponsors. If they leave their original sponsors, then they are considered to be in Kuwait illegally. As the original sponsors always hold the workers travel documents, in effect this means that when workers start work somewhere else they are working and staying illegally in the country, without the possession of their travel documents and work visas. In a catch 22 situation this also means they cannot leave the country. Some 4,000 Sri Lankan workers had obtained emergency passports in order to leave Kuwait before the end of the amnesty period.

Violations

Egyptian farm workers threatened with deportation over wage complaints: In January some 120 Egyptian farming workers held a demonstration protesting against wage levels that had not risen in four years and remained set at 60 Dinar per month. Many workers reported that they had repeatedly complained to the company owners and that each time they were threatened with termination of contract and deportation if they did not desist from their complaints or if they took their case to the Ministry of Social Affairs. One worker reported that the company had been transferring workers' visas to other sponsors without telling them.

Oil Strike – threats of strike busting: In September, workers from private oil companies and the Ministry of Oil staged a sit-in front of the ministry's headquarters to demand equal treatment with workers at the state run Kuwait Petroleum Corporation (KPC) and its subsidiaries. The government had increased wages for state oil workers after a short strike and this triggered strikes in other sectors over wages and other benefits. According to the Chairman of the Union of Private Oil Sector Workers Salem Al-Ajmi, the 5,000 workers in private oil companies often receive delayed wages, have no health insurance and work excessive hours in contrast to other oil workers despite a law stipulating equality. The union had previously asked for a meeting with the Minister twice but did not reportedly receive a response. In November the government warned striking oil workers that it would recruit outside replacements to confront the strike that disrupted shipping traffic. Although Kuwait is OPEC's fourth biggest oil exporter, officials say the country cannot afford to significantly boost the payroll of its huge public sector.

Fire-fighters face legal action for staging protest: On 3 October, some 200 fire-fighters demanded implementation of health insurance, increased salaries and more flexible leave systems. Firefighters attempted to enter the main fire department building. The director of Kuwait's fire department reported that legal measures have been started against those involved in what the authorities are describing as 'riots'.

Military committee to deal with customs officials on strike: In October, more than 3,000 customs officers joined the wave of strikes, sharply escalating pressure on the government. The open-ended walkout froze shipping traffic in and out of ports and oil terminals and disrupted airport and land border crossing operations. After a two day strike customs officials called off their action after receiving government assurances their demands will be met. The authorities threatened to use the army and National Guard to replace striking workers and set up a military committee staffed by the Ministries of Interior and Defence, the National Guard and other authorities. The committee was criticised for failing to negotiate with workers and instead focusing only on threatening workers back to work. Government authorities promised that they would study the demands of the striking workers within a maximum of three months. Opposition MPs clashed with pro-government MPs over the reactions to the strike with many in the government calling for decisive action to stop the strike due to Kuwait's dependence on imports and exports. The Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) repeated the Federation's call for a high-level committee that would include the Council of Ministers, Labour and Social Affairs Ministry, the union movement and other stakeholders to examine the matter, rather than the intervention of the military.

Strikers replaced with other workers: On 16 and 17 October inspectors at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour took strike action, which led to the postponement of various council meetings. The few who continued working did so for fear of losing their jobs or wages. The strikers had been calling for equality of treatment with workers from other Ministries. The strikers complained that the Labour Affairs ministry had assigned their tasks to other less qualified workers.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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