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Public sector strikes in Kuwait set to get worse, trade union chief warns

James Calderwood

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KUWAIT CITY // Strikes sweeping through the Kuwaiti public sector will increase unless the government comes to grip with the concerns of employees, the head of a major trade union said.

"We are not looking for disorder, but we want our rights," said Faiez Almutairi, the president of the Kuwait Trade Union Federation, at the organisation's headquarters in Medan Hawally.

"The strikes are not just about money. This has been building up for a long time," said Mr Almutairi, the leader of an organisation that negotiates in disputes between the government and Kuwaiti unions.

The recent surge in industrial action was sparked in September when the government gave oil sector employees, who had threatened to down tools, salary increases ranging from 15.5 per cent for senior officials to 66 per cent for Kuwaiti technicians, at an estimated annual cost of 142 million Kuwaiti dinars (Dh1.9 billion).

When news of the deal spread, so did the strikes. Soon customs officials, port workers, and staff at the ministries of interior, health and social affairs and labour all started mass walkouts in protest against poor salaries and benefits.

Mr Almutairi blames the Civil Service Commission, which "didn't do anything" when the unions had approached it with their demands.

Last week, chaos erupted at the fire department's headquarters when scores of firemen and three parliamentarians tried to storm the building to speak with the director. Their list of demands included an end to a clock-in system that uses fingerprint scans.

The trade union official said public sector employees have been forced into industrial action by a difficult economic situation. He said Kuwaitis feel they are not being treated equally in their jobs in areas such as promotions, because better educated workers are climbing the ranks ahead of experienced employees.

Employees of the state-owned Kuwait Airways Corporation (KAC) almost joined the protests with a strike planned for this week. But union officials postponed the action for one month last weekend.

The threat comes when the heavily staffed airline, which has nearly 5,000 employees for 17 aircraft, is undergoing a long and acrimonious privatisation that has held up badly needed investment.

Mishal Al Otaibi, a pilot, said most of KAC's 2,000 Kuwaiti employees had planned to take part in the protest, but the union did not want to open the door for the company's foreign workforce to join in because those employees could be fired without notice.

"Because we are Kuwaiti, we have protection from the government," Mr Al Otaibi said.

Adel Bourisly, the director of KAC's public relations and media, believes "there is coordination" between the airline's union and those in other sectors of government. He said the union's demands include using business rather than economy class for staff flights.

Kuwait's hulking public sector employs the vast majority of citizens. In addition to paying some of the highest civil service salaries in the world, the state provides benefits such as free health care and education, land, cheap loans and generous pensions.

But the largesse comes at a price. Abbas Al Mejren, an economist at Kuwait University, said that from 2002 to 2010, the cost of public sector salaries increased from 1.5 billion dinars (Dh19.9bn) to 4bn dinars. He said if the price of oil drops, the government could face a huge deficit. The head of the Kuwait parliament's budgets committee said earlier this year that Kuwait needs an oil price of around US$85 to $90 a barrel to balance its "crazy" budget. Oil is currently hovering around $100 a barrel.

Mr Al Mejren said if the government gave benefits to one group, the prices of goods and services will inflate and "you will harm other groups, relatively. It's an old economic problem."

Even the university's academic society is sending text messages to its members about a planned gathering on October 26 to support salary increases, he said. "Everybody is thinking: well, why not us."

Because of the tension in the National Assembly, Mr Al Mejren said, some Kuwaitis believed the government was weak and that members of parliament will take their side in an industrial dispute, "thus, they believe it is the best time to demand in increase in salaries".

The Arab Spring is having "some psychological impact" but internal reasons were more important, he said.

Salma Hamad Alessa, the secretary general of Kuwait Transparency Society, an organisation that tries to monitor corruption, said Kuwait is different from countries affected by the Arab Spring because citizens have jobs and money and the rulers did not come "by fire and gun".

"The government puts everyone in a job, even if they don't need them," Ms Alessa said.

"It's just that corruption is bothering us. We need better services, we need equality, we need justice, we need more freedom and we need a better democracy," she said.

"If there is fairness, people wouldn't protest."

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