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2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Kuwait

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 20 November 2008
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Kuwait, 20 November 2008, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
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: 2,900,000
Capital: Kuwait
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

The government ratified the ILO Convention on collective bargaining, but public sector workers are not allowed to bargain, and the draft labour code has not passed into law. The single trade union system continues to exist. There were many strikes by migrant workers protesting terrible conditions. A standard labour contract was introduced for foreign domestic workers.

Trade union rights in law

Progress on new Labour Code?: The government has been promising since 1996 to introduce a new Labour Code in line with international labour standards but has still failed to do so. It has set up a tripartite committee to review the draft code and has sought the ILO's technical assistance to ensure it complies with international standards.

Single trade union system: The law provides for a single trade union system, with only one national federation, the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF), allowed. This restriction remains in the new draft labour code. At present there may not be more than one trade union per establishment, enterprise or activity, but this will change if the new code is adopted. The KTUF only organises public sector workers, including workers in some ministries, but is pressing the government to be allowed to organise in the private sector.

Barriers to organising: At least 100 workers are required in order to organise a trade union. The founding members must include at least 15 workers of Kuwaiti nationality. In effect, this restricts the workers from organising in the private sector, as the majority of workers are migrants. For a trade union to be officially recognised, the Ministry of Interior must deliver a statement certifying its approval of the list of founding members. All these provisions have been dropped in the new draft code.

Government supervision: Government authorities have wide powers of supervision over trade union finances and records, and the government subsidises up to 90 per cent of most union budgets. If a union is dissolved, its assets are turned over to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, although this provision will be eliminated if the new code becomes law. Trade unions may not engage in political activity, and the courts can dissolve any union that violates the labour laws or threatens public order and morality. The restriction on political activity remains in the new code.

Workers excluded from labour law: Domestic workers and maritime workers are not permitted to either found or belong to a trade union. The new draft does not change this.

Foreign workers, who make up about 80 per cent of the workforce, must have lived in Kuwait for at least five years and must obtain a certificate of moral standing and good conduct before they are allowed to join trade unions as nonvoting members. They are not permitted to run for any trade union posts. The restrictions on the role of foreign workers in trade unions have been removed in the new draft.

Migrant workers in Kuwait are bound by the sponsor system, a regulation that restricts their movements and puts them at the mercy of their employers. However, during 2005 the government said that it intended to change the law and to issue a guarantee for migrant workers, thus preventing their employer from taking advantage of their vulnerable position.

Collective bargaining: Collective bargaining is recognised in law, and in 2007 the government ratified ILO Convention 98 on the right to collective bargaining. According to the Civil Service Law, the government and its employees establish wages and conditions in consultation with the Government Workers' Union. Employers and workers in the private sector negotiate directly, subject to certain restrictions.

Restrictions on strikes: Strike action is only allowed in the private sector, which accounts for six per cent of the workforce. Compulsory arbitration is imposed if the workers and employers are unable to resolve a conflict. The new draft code still contains this provision, even though by international labour standards compulsory arbitration should apply to essential services only. There is no protection for strikers against retribution by the state. Nevertheless, several strikes and sit-ins were held in the country in 2007, without provoking serious incidents.

Trade union rights in practice and Violations in 2007

Background: There were a number of strikes, both by national and foreign workers during the year, and some labour organisations were threatened by the government as a result.

Organising: Despite the trade union monopoly imposed by law, some trade unions exist outside the KTUF, such as the Bank Workers' Union and the Kuwait Airways Workers' Union.

In practice, reports indicate that foreign workers have joined trade unions before they have worked in the country for the statutory five years. However, less than five per cent of the unionised workforce is foreign.

Strikes: Strikes are rare, not least because they are only allowed in the private sector, which is not organised , is very small and is mostly composed of foreigners whose stay in the country could be compromised.

Collective bargaining: Collective bargaining is rarely practiced 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.

In response to the strikes, there have been calls for the government to remove the ban on collective bargaining in the public sector.

Migrant workers exploited: The government's policy of reducing its reliance on migrant workers has not been implemented. These workers are still exploited, even though the government has sought to improve their legal protection.

During 2007 there were newspaper reports of migrant workers housed in terrible conditions. In February, Indian employees of the Shuwaikh Cleaning Company went on strike to protest about the pay and conditions.

Domestic workers, mainly women, are particularly vulnerable. They are subject to prosecution if they leave their employers, who often confiscate their passports, and they are frequently the victims of physical and sexual abuse. It has been alleged that some underage girls enter the country on false travel documents in order to work as maids.

In response to scandals about the abusive treatment and conditions, in 2007 the government introduced a standard employment contract for domestic workers, but recruitment agencies try to get round it.

In 2005, the government created a special committee to examine the position of domestic workers, and the following year it asked the KTUF to examine the issues involved in establishing formal representation of foreign workers in Kuwait.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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