Oil workers strike in Kuwait

Over 13,000 oil workers in Kuwait have now been on strike for 3 days. Strikes are rare, exceedingly rare, in the oil producing oligarchies of the Gulf States. Whilst the oil workers have union rights, most workers who are migrants usually have appalling living conditions and no civil or trade union rights.

This strike is the first major strike in Kuwait in many years. Although the last months have seen growing activity from a number of Kuwaiti unions in tourism and from municipal workers.

There had been a flurry of public sector strikes back in September/ October 2011 leading on in November and December to street protests that led to the resignation of the Kuwaiti parliament.

Then, after the Arab Spring, as now the strikes come at a time of crisis across the Gulf states. This time the crisis is economic as oil prices remain low and budgets of most of those countries go into major deficit.

Iran freed from the constraints of sanctions is rapidly expanding its oil production. Saudi is leading others in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to maintain high production partly to bloc Iran’s expansion and partly to combat other sources of energy supply by reducing its prices. An attempt to agree a freeze on oil production came to no avail in Qatar’s capital Doha at the week-end. Saudi Arabia walked away threatening to increase its oil production to spite Iranian ambitions.

The cost for the all the Gulf States remains high. Kuwait has a population of less than 4 million nearly ½ of whom are migrants. It has lost 60% of its revenue with a deficit estimated to rise to $40 billion this year – a deficit of $20,000 per Kuwaiti citizen.

Whilst average income in Kuwait is frequently reported as being amongst the top 5 per capita incomes in the world, there are huge inequalities – with dire poverty amongst migrants, some of whom have been there for 40-50 years, and increasing hardships for indigenous Kuwaitis.

The Kuwait Petroleum Corporation, with subsidiaries of the Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) and the Kuwait National Petroleum Company (KNPC), is nationalised. It is effectively owned by the royal family through the medium of the the state. It is the tenth biggest oil company in the world with a revenue of $252 billion in 2014.

As in all the oil states the public sector and the oil industry is generally used to distribute wealth lavishly and opaquely to the ruling elite. Much of that wealth is wasted developmentally – it does little or nothing to diversify or develop the economy, it just fuels the excesses of the ruling elite. Meanwhile oil is losing its value and will at some stage run out.

So in Kuwait as in Saudi Arabia, the ruling class have decided to reorganise their economy. The public sector, including Kuwaiti oil is being privatised. By doing this they hope to get the market to shake off some of these rentier wastages whilst giving a capitalist manner of concentrating wealth amongst the ruling class and forcing that money to work as capital to develop other industries.

Kuwaiti policemen stand guard during a demonstration of opposition protesters to demand the release of political prisoners and press for democratic reforms in the oil-rich Gulf state, on March 23,2015 oustide the national assembly in Kuwait City. More than 500 activists gathered outside parliament for the third week in a row after authorities jailed opposition leader and former lawmaker Mussallam al-Barrak for allegedly insulting the emir.

Kuwaiti police facing protests against imprisonment of political prisoners, March 2015 Image from Middle East Eye http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/kuwaiti-security-forces-violently-disperse-anti-government-protest-1878869579

There are far more brutal and undemocratic powers in the Middle East than Kuwait but Kuwait is no democracy. The Emir is head of state, the Prime Minister is appointed from the Emir’s own royal family, the oil company executives are generally from families close to the Emir.

And despite there being a somewhat independent parliament from the Emir, there are increasing restrictions on free speech and little possibilities for workers or the rest of the population to form political parties.

As a recent report from Amnesty has catalogued, repression has increased over the last 5 years https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde17/2987/2015/en/. In July 2014, in response to growing protests, the cabinet pledged “an iron fist policy and a decisive and firm confrontation with whatever could undermine the state, its institutions and constitution”. Scores of human rights and democracy activists, journalists, online critics have been arrested and imprisoned usually on the pretext of ‘insulting’ the Emir, Kuwait’s ally Saudi Arabia or Islam.

Particularly under attack are the 100,000 Arabic Bidun, who had legal nationality prior to 1985 but are now designated stateless despite having been in Kuwait all their lives. There have been hundreds of arrests of Bidun protesting against this and sentences of deportations handed out. These include prominent activists Abdulhakim al-Fadhli, who was repeatedly arrested and detained on a range of charges between 2011 and 2014 and ‘Abdullah ‘Atallah, who was sentenced on 1 July 2015 to five years in prison, including for “insulting the Amir”.

Despite its ‘democratic parliament’, the ruling elite are in total political control and the proposed reorganisation of the economy will therefore inevitably consist of attacks on working class livings standards.

And that is what the oil workers see with the current attacks on their pay and benefits and why they have taken action. The Kuwait rulers have already started to pull in overseas oil workers from India and Egypt to break the strike. Last year they got voted through parliament the option of using troops in the oilfields if national supplies are put at risk.

Despite their comparatively low number, 13,000 on strike, the oil workers clearly enjoy wide support. They have felt confident enough to declare an indefinite strike and three of the only 50 MPs in the very select Kuwaiti parliament have supported the oil workers on their public protests.

So this strike may well continue into weeks. Even if the oil workers are not victorious in the first instance, but especially if they are, it will send powerful messages to workers across the oil states of the Gulf and even Iran. The workers of that part of the world are again on the march.

Postscript – 20th – 12:00

Late in the night of the 19th April the Kuwaiti oil unions, the Oil & Petrochemicals Industries Workers Confederation, announced the cessation of its strike. The Kuwait oil strike is over for now but will the government now concede to any of their demands in talks? On pay maybe, but probably not the significant contractual benefits given to the striking oil workers who are all Kuwaiti nationals.

It is unclear why the union called off the strike. A hard line was taken right from the onset of the strike by the Kuwaiti Finance and acting Oil Minister Anas al-Saleh with talk of the strike being illegal and assertions that there would be no talk and no concessions made whilst they were on strike.

The initial reason given for the end of the strike by the union (by tweet) was because of respect for the Emir. This may imply some direct contact from the Emir. Later Adel al-Fadhel, a spokesman for the unions, told Associated Press “His highness, the emir, intervened and guaranteed to preserve the rights of the workers according to the law”. Imprisonment in Kuwait has happened frequently when the Emir is alleged to have been ‘insulted’ so refusal to accept the Emir’s assurance may have caused concern. Whether the strike was called off through fear or out of naive expectations of action from the Emir, it is impossible to tell from this distance.

The unions in Kuwait have been reluctant to be pulled into politics. On a number of occasions they have been called on by the diverse Kuwaiti political opposition to call a general strike for political change and have refused.

Another problem for the striking oil workers is their relationship with migrant workers. A sizeable fraction of the Kuwaiti oil workers are migrants – none of these could legally be on strike. The action already started by the government to bring more migrant workers in to replace the striking workers might have been unexpected by the union and shaken their confidence.

It is likely that a fear of  ending up either in a political battleground or in a battle to integrate migrant workers in their struggle has impacted on the union leadership.

It is unlikely that the calling off of such a strike would not have been met with argument. But if there is to be development of union struggles in Kuwait or the other Gulf states, the Kuwaiti unions have to factor into their plans that strikes will become ‘political’ very rapidly. They must also find a way of helping migrant workers get represented and fighting alongside them for their common interests as workers as well as against their particular oppression as migrant workers.

If that doesn’t happen then all Kuwaiti workers will pay the price for the economic crisis of their rulers making.

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