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2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Kuwait

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 8 June 2011
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Kuwait, 8 June 2011, available at: [accessed 1 June 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: 3,000,000
Capital: Kuwait
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

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.


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.


Background: Kuwait is one of the richest Arab states, and some 68% of its population comes from overseas. 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 member 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.

Collective bargaining rarely practised: 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.

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 allowed in the private sector, which is not organised, is very small and is mostly composed of foreigners. For example in April oil workers protested against privatisation plans and wages; in June the Kuwait Trade Union Federation held a demonstration to protest against what it called the government's selective method of awarding salary increases; in August around 185 bus drivers went on strike over a recent pay cut of KWD 50; and in November baggage handlers and airport cleaners went on strike.

After a spate of strikes the government restated that all strikes must be kept within the law, which bans strikes from affecting the running of the country or endangering national security. It also threatened to take legal action against any workers who overstep the boundaries. In May the government banned all trade unions from holding strikes and sit-ins, reportedly saying that they "delay development plans, disrupts the workflow of government bodies and reflect negatively on Kuwait". Trade Unions protested against this move and the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) held a press conference on 29 May to protest.

Migrant domestic workers abused: There are around 650 – 700,000 migrant domestic workers in Kuwait, the majority of them 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 form the labour law and are vulnerable to abuse because of the lack of effective legal remedies.

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.

Egyptian workers threatened for protesting months of nonpayment: On 2 March nearly 300 Egyptian employees of a cleaning and contracting company staged a protest against the non-payment of their salaries. They had not been paid for eight months and held the protest as a last resort after complaints failed to achieve any change. Reports state that company management threatened the workers with dismissal and deportation after they complained. The workers had not been paid enough to buy daily meals and faced eviction from their accommodation as they could not pay the rent despite the company's legal responsibility to take care of accommodation.

Right to strike threatened for dockers: In March, in response to a threatened strike by the Kuwait Ports Foundation Workers' Union, the Kuwaiti Council of Ministers held an emergency meeting during which it decided to take legal action to prevent the strike from going ahead despite the union's legal right to take action. The union, which represents 930 members employed by the state-owned Kuwait Ports Foundation, has attempted to enter into negotiations with managers for the past two years to discuss the fact that staff benefits and career development structures have not been reviewed since the 1970s.

Bus drivers sacked during strike: Bus drivers from the Kuwait Public Transport Company went on strike in August over non payment of a promised allowance and deduction in the salaries of some 2,900 workers. 88 drivers were reportedly dismissed during the strike, but calls were made for their reinstatement.

Migrant workers allegedly deported for complaining: In August 45 Filipinas employed as beauticians in Kuwait ran away from their employer, whom they accused of illegal recruitment, unfair labour practices, and physical and sexual abuse. One of three workers reportedly deported from Kuwait due to their role in the protest said to media that they had been told by labour officials that they were not entitled to any assistance since they were not legitimate migrant workers. Officials investigating the incident merely stated that all but three decided to go back to work the next day.

Members protest over union directors: Some 200 employees of the Ministry of Communications held a demonstration on 19 September at the headquarters of the Union of Kuwait Government Sector Workers, calling for the dissolution of the board of directors of the union and an urgent general meeting to elect a new board. They complained the current board of directors had for many years taken over the union, deferring the appointment of new members. The workers criticised the board for poor reporting to members and for declining to register other ministry workers as members of the union. The current board of directors has also reportedly hindered workers from joining the union, and there have been no new members for seven years.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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