Population: 2 700 000
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 - 87 - 98 - 100 - 105 - 111 - 138 - 182
There was no change in Kuwait, where the 13 year-old draft Labour Code still did not come into force, despite the government’s promises to make progress and its undertaking to ratify ILO Convention 98. The single trade union system is still in place and the restrictions on trade union rights and freedoms remain very severe. The position of migrant workers continues to raise serious concerns.
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. In 2003, it set up a tripartite committee to review the draft code and follow-up on procedures for promulgation. It has sought the technical assistance of the International Labour Organisation to ensure that it complies with international standards.
Single trade union system: The law provides for a single trade union system. Only one national federation is allowed, the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF). 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. 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. The KTUF has affiliated to the ITUC .
Barriers to organising: As things stand 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. The new code would not change this. Furthermore, 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 is another provision that 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 excluded from the application of the law and are therefore 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 resided 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 non-voting 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.
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 2006, without provoking serious incidents.
Collective bargaining: Collective bargaining is recognised in law, subject to certain restrictions and may be referred to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour.
Trade union rights in practice
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, and although the law allows for direct negotiations between employers and workers, or workers’ representatives, in the private sector, the sector is not organised.
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. 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. In 2005, the government created a special committee to examine the position of domestic workers and the year after it asked the KTUF to examine the issues involved in establishing formal representation of foreign workers in Kuwait.