x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Kuwait unions oppose proposal to punish strikers

A panel charged with ending growing labour unrest in Kuwait is considering a law that would punish striking civil servants.

KUWAIT CITY // A panel charged with ending growing labour unrest in Kuwait is considering a law that would punish striking civil servants.

A crisis team formed by the cabinet "to take all necessary measures and procedures to ensure the functioning of the state" discussed the law yesterday during its first meeting at the Civil Service Commission, the Alaan news agency reported.

"We will not accept it, not at all," said Abdulrahman Al Ghanim, the deputy chairman of the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF), an organisation that negotiates in labour disputes between the unions and the government.

Mr Al Ghanim said Kuwait's unions would "stand against" the suggested law because the freedom to strike was a "constitutional right". He said he believed the National Assembly, which has a strong contingent of parliamentarians who were close to the unions, would block any government attempt to outlaw industrial action.

Kuwait has been beset with strikes since September, when the oil sector managed to negotiate pay rises of up to 66 per cent from the state. Since then, employees of several ministries and public sector institutions have lobbied for better salaries and benefits.

This week, a two-day strike by customs officials temporarily disrupted operations at ports, the airport and led to queues of several hundred lorries at land borders. The action, which threatened to cripple the crucial oil industry, was postponed on Tuesday night.

A source at the General Administration for Customs said the strike was called off when the government promised to "urgently" look into the union's demands. The requests included pay rises of up to 150 per cent for nearly 3,000 customs employees.

The customs official said the oil workers' pay rise in September "opened the door" for other public sector institutions to aggressively seek similar treatment. "The strength of your strike depends on the weapons you have - and the customs have a lot of weapons."

The government's tactic of considering demands in return for the postponement of strikes has bought it time, but eventual payouts could put pressure on the state budget.

On Sunday, Kuwait Airways Corporation staff who had a list of demands, including better salaries, postponed a strike until November 3. Hussein Al Habib, the secretary general of the union, said the strike was delayed because the "management and the government said they would do everything we want".

"They have a chance until the end of the week; it's their last chance," Mr Habib said.

Mr Al Ghanim said he has been hearing "positive signals" in negotiations between the restive unions and the government. But many of the concessions were "still not on the ground", the KTUF official added. "They have to change their words into actions."