x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Laid off Kuwaitis start to fight back

The financial crisis has hit the Gulf's labour force at every level. But within the government there is conflict over sacked citizens.

Khaled al Duwaisan became an advocate for Kuwaiti nationals who have lost their jobs after he said he was fired via a text message.
Khaled al Duwaisan became an advocate for Kuwaiti nationals who have lost their jobs after he said he was fired via a text message.

KUWAIT CITY // Khaled al Duwaisan was in hospital for two days when he checked his phone's inbox expecting to see supportive messages from family and friends. Instead, it was a message from his boss, and the news was not good: he had been fired. "Why didn't they talk to me, I am a human being," Mr al Duwaisan said. "There was no clear reason. They only mentioned the economic problem." Mr al Duwaisan said he had been working for the Islamic financial institution Investment Dar for a year and a half before his job was terminated this May when he took a week off to seek treatment in hospital.

He was not fired because of his medical condition, but because of the financial crisis that is sweeping the globe, and he is one of many Kuwaitis who have suffered the same fate. Some MPs say about 4,500 citizens have been made redundant as a direct result of the economic problems that started toward the end of last year. Investment Dar did not respond to questions about firing its employees by text message.

After recovering from his illness, and disappointed by the government's lack of support for his situation, Mr al Duwaisan decided to fight back. Last month, he started a group called the Gathering of Laid-Off Citizens to relay the plight of Kuwait's newly unemployed to MPs and the media. "I have 180 names. Six or seven new people call me every week, and I receive four or five e-mails [each week]," he said. "I have people from all sorts of private companies: banks, investment companies and car companies - everything in the private sector."

Mr al Duwaisan said some of the group are in serious trouble. Couples are getting divorced because the men cannot provide for their families and others who cannot afford to pay loans are getting chased - and imprisoned - by the police. "Our salaries might be around 1,500 Kuwait dinar [Dh19,000], but we have to pay around 800KD for our homes and cars. Now, I have zero to pay these," he said. "I have two children and I have lost everything. My father and mother are helping me, but some people don't have anyone who can help them. The problem is getting bigger and bigger."

In May 2008, the state news agency reported that almost 19,250 Kuwaitis, about 5.5 per cent of the workforce, were unemployed, but the financial crisis has increased layoffs throughout the Gulf Co-operation Council area. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 30,000 workers were laid off in the Gulf in the last quarter of 2008. Kuwait's MPs are trying to react by gathering enough signatures for a special session in parliament, which is in its summer recess, to discuss this issue on August 18. A local newspaper, Al Watan, reported yesterday that 27 of the assembly's 50 MPs have already signed, and they only need another six signatures before they can officially present the request.

Two weeks ago, the government also took steps to deal with the crisis. The minister of finance was put in charge of a committee with representatives from the ministry of social affairs and labour, the Public Institution for Social Security and the Manpower and Government Restructuring Programme (MGRP). The MGRP supports Kuwaitis who work in the private sector by providing them with job training and financial rewards. It gives out benefits when private sector employees get married or have children, perks that come as standard in any government job.

On Monday, the MGRP sent the results of its study to the minister of finance, and it has concluded that the real number of Kuwaitis who had been fired was closer to 1,000. "It's not as bad as it seems," said Omayma Hussain, a manager at the legal department of the MGRP. She said a specialist at the department analysed the figure being used by MPs, 4,500, and "he found out that most of these people are not really getting fired".

Ms Hussain said some of the 4,500 have retired, others have found alternative employment and some are using the situation to try and get a comfortable public sector job. She said the "turnover" of Kuwaitis who would normally leave jobs in the private sector from September until July is usually in the region of 400 to 600. She said if there were 4,500 sacked Kuwaitis "then there is a crisis", but if the government looks at our figures then "it might decide something else." Ms Hussain said the MGRP wants to help any Kuwaiti who has lost his job because of the crisis, but they have to be genuine.

The MGRP's report recommends giving Kuwaitis who have been fired a percentage of their wages, which will be decided by the minister, for six months, she said. Abdul Rahman Alghanim, the vice president of Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF), said private sector companies are sacking Kuwaitis to "set off alarm bells that they need financial support". "All of them are making good money, but they want more profit," he said, adding that "almost all" of the victims are local citizens because they get paid more than other nationalities.

The KTUF's solution is the new labour law for private sector workers, which has been through much of the parliament's procedures and it is just waiting for the final vote. The union wants the law included in parliament's proposed special session in August. Mr Alghanim said it prevents any company from sacking foreign and national private sector workers "until they do something wrong like damaging the company or selling the company's secrets".

Mr Alghanim said that instead of providing money for struggling companies or paying the salaries of laid-off Kuwaitis, the best thing the government can do for the economy is to speed up the major development projects, which will divert public money to all sectors of the economy. He also said the government is responsible for those Kuwaitis who have been sacked already, and it must provide them with jobs.

But Ms Hussain argued that this plan is "not sensible", asking, "Where would you put them?" Whether the issue of laid off citizens makes it to a special session in the parliament or the government acts unilaterally to impose a solution remains to be seen. And the real number of sacked citizens will probably be disputed for a long time. But for Mr al Duwaisan, the figure is of little relevance. "Let's say it is 1,000. How many children do they have? How many families do they have? Some have to support their parents too," he said.

"This has been going on since August 2008, and just now they are waking up. Some people are saying it's a small problem, but it's not." jcalderwood@thenational.ae