Population: 2,900,000
Capital: Kuwait
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

The draft labour code has still not passed into law. Public sector workers are not allowed to go on strike. The single trade union system continues to exist. Hundreds of migrant workers were arrested and deported after strikes protesting about terrible conditions and low pay.

Trade union rights in law

Progress on new Labour Code?: Since 1996 the government has promised 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.

Freedom of association – right to organise: 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% 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.

Right to 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.

Right to strike: Strike action is only allowed in the private sector, which accounts for 6% 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.

Migrant workers: Foreign workers, who make up about 80% 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. As a result, many are grossly exploited.

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.

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2008

Background: The May general election returned more rigid salafi Islamists and tribal candidates, over the reformist Islamic Constitutional Movement (HADAS). The main labour unrest consisted of strikes and protests by migrant workers.

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 5% of the unionised workforce is foreign.

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.

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.

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.

Strike leaders arrested: On 19 April in Kuwait City six Filipinos – Jose Mugnot, Jolito Bawaan, Jonathan Abad, Eduardo Barali, Joel Buenaventure and Mario Mesinas – were taken to the Mina Abdullah Police Station, where Mario Mesinas was reportedly beaten after the management picked the group out as the alleged leaders of a strike at the Al Jassis Trucking Company.

The arrests occurred after 400 workers from the Philippines, India, Egypt, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan had been holding a sit-in since 16 April to demand a salary and trip allowances increase and an improvement in their entitlements.

The men were released the same day, but then called back for questioning. Finally, a case was filed against them for damaging a government vehicle.

Two hundred Bangladeshi workers deported: Hundreds of Bangladeshis employed as cleaners and rubbish collectors by Al-Jawhara Company in Jleeb Al-Shyoukh were arrested by police on 29 July in Kuwait City after a week of violent strikes and protests. Up to 7,000 Bangladeshi workers had been protesting over working conditions. Employers are said to withhold salaries for up to nine months, and to house them in overcrowded, squalid conditions.

The government agreed on a salary increase, and acknowledged that the lack of government supervision of contracts was to blame for the labour unrest. However, it said that anyone participating in further riots would be deported. More than 200 of them were then deported.

More migrant workers arrested: On 18 August 16 Bangladeshi workers were arrested after they held a strike to protest over low pay.

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