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2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Kuwait

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 9 June 2010
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Kuwait, 9 June 2010, available at: [accessed 23 May 2023]
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

A new and somewhat disappointing new labour code was finally passed in the last days of 2009. Public sector workers are not allowed to go on strike and the single trade union system continues to exist. One prominent union leader and parliamentarian was detained for 12 days while the government was also accused of interfering in the activities and governance of the Kuwait journalists union. The abuse of migrant workers again made headlines throughout the year.

Trade union rights in law

Despite recent improvements to trade union rights, a number of problematic areas exist in the law. A new Labour Code was adopted in December 2009, and while some excessive restrictions were dropped, several others remain. Only one national federation is permitted, the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF), which only organises workers in the oil and petrochemical sector, together with public sector workers including employees of some ministries. While the Labour Code no longer requires at least 100 workers to establish a union nor limits the number of unions per establishment, it still stipulates that the right to form unions lies with Kuwaiti workers. The rule that the assets of a dissolved union are turned over to the authorities was also removed from the new Code. However, the authorities have wide powers to supervise trade union finances and records, and unions may not engage in any political activity. Furthermore, the Labour Code provides that no collective agreement may exceed three years, thus unduly restricting the right to free collective bargaining. In the event of a collective dispute, compulsory arbitration can be imposed on the parties if they don't reach an agreement. Finally, there is no protection for strikers against retribution.

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2009

Background: The 2008 general election returned more rigid salafi Islamists and tribal candidates, over the reformist Islamic Constitutional Movement (HADAS). In March, however, Parliament was dissolved after allegations of corruption and in the subsequent May 2009 elections, three female MPs win seats. In December, another corruption scandal erupts but the government survives. The main labour unrest consisted of strikes and protests by migrant workers who were again subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. There has been a recent spate of Islamist militant violence. After lengthy discussions on 25 December 2009, a new labour law passed which contains many improvements, however, the sponsorship system which contributes to much of the abusive working conditions for migrants has been kept.

Serious restrictions on organising: The single trade union system continues to exist. However, despite the trade union monopoly imposed by law, some trade unions exist outside the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (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. Migrant workers remain vulnerable to abuse and retribution if they protest poor working conditions.

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.

Strikes occur despite restrictions: 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. However, despite the ban strikes do occur. For example, workers at the Shuwaikh, Shuaiba and Doha ports went on strike in March 2009 over low pay and other working conditions. The strike occurred after years of failed negotiations.

In October, airport workers went on strike over allowance (the majority of Kuwaiti employees receive allowances as part of their salary packages) however, employees from the Civil Aviation Department (CAD) claimed they were not receiving any allowances and formed a union to better protect their rights. In the autumn, having received no response regarding staff allowances from management, they began discussing strike action. A previous 2007 work stoppage by employees led to a resolution being passed which bans strikes at various sensitive places including the airport.

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

Interference with union activities: In February, the Kuwait Journalists Union complained of government's interference when the authorities ignored requests to certify the new board of directors and finally instead asked for all members of the General Assembly to provide their whereabouts for the preceding six months – contrary to Kuwaiti laws on union governance.

Victimisation of unionists: In April, the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) and its President Khaled Al-Azemi condemned the forced transfer of Ahmed Al-Anzi, the President of the trade union of the Civil Employees at the Ministry of Defense. The KTUF claimed that he had been under investigation as a result of his trade union activities.

Detention of unionist: On 8 April, the union leader and political candidate Khaled Al-Tahoos (Tahous), was arrested. He was released after 12 days detention but had initially remained in custody without being referred to the Public Prosecution Department (PPD) as required by law. Other parliamentary candidates, along with a number of trade unionists, criticised the arrest. Tahoos was allegedly held for making 'incendiary' remarks. It was not immediately known whether the public prosecution will press formal charges.

Philippine workers abused: In June, 20 mainly domestic workers from the Philippines who had been subjected to overwork, fatigue, verbal, physical and sexual abuse were repatriated by Philippine authorities to the Philippines after being housed temporarily at the Filipino Workers Resource Centre (FWRC). One male worker who worked in a salon reported that he came on a tourist visa and the employment visa promised by his employer never materialized. He and his co-workers were forced to work until 2 am with no proper accommodation and food. A domestic worker reported that she had been continually beaten by her employer and then by the police when she complained. Despite repatriation, the number of abused workers in the FWRC continues to rise as Filipino workers escape daily.

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 November alone, there were 13 cases of alleged suicide or suicide attempts in Kuwait by domestic workers. In June, a delegation from Indonesia's trade unions in Indonesia condemned the Indonesian Embassy in Kuwait for not taking action against employers who had reportedly raped and tortured some 350 Indonesian female migrant workers. In October, the Indonesian Labour Ministry suspended deployment of Indonesian domestic workers to Kuwait until the cases of 600 abused domestic workers were resolved. Then in November 2009, it announced it was to repatriate some 1,750 Indonesian workers in the region including those in Kuwait. Kuwait was earlier criticised for rejecting a proposal of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to establish a centre to provide assistance to human trafficking victims. However, the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) is undertaking new programmes addressing the issue.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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