Interview with ILO rep. in Kuwait

Human capital ‘very important’ for development plan

The argument about funding the development plan is less important than the real driving factor for development – human capital – said the official in charge of Kuwait’s International Labor Organization. In an exclusive interview with the Kuwait Times, Thabet Al-Haroun talked about a number of labor-related issues in Kuwait, from the implementation of the newly passed labor law to domestic labor and privatization.

KT: It has been six months since the new Labor Law was published in the official gazette, how would you describe the implementation of the law and its impact on the ground? How is the issue of establishing a general authority for recruitment to replace the sponsorship system developing? How far did the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor move on this regard, considering that the ILO is a key consultant on the matter?

TA: The ILO is not only a consulting authority in the matters of labor. We also follow up on the implementation of labor-related legislation. When any country issues labor-related legislation the organization follows up to make sure that the law is compatible with international labor standards.

Kuwait is one of the countries that have signed basic labor agreements and the labor law was an important demand for the ILO. Now that the law is issued, we feel that the Minister of Social Affairs and Labor has the desire to take the articles of the law and its applications seriously. This is very pleasing for us. What is remaining is (to establish) a public authority for labor recruitment.

In my opinion, it would have been better to form a joint committee from specialists in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, the Fatwa and Legislation committee, and legal experts in addition to related entities like the Chamber of Commerce and Kuwait’s labor union. The job of this joint committee has to be to create a foundation and system for a public authority for labor recruitment.  We are suggesting that because we don’t want the result to be contradicting or unsatisfying for the demands of the labor market in Kuwait. The ultimate goal of the whole legislation is to fight against the bad aspects of the current system. The biggest problem the current system is still suffering from is visa traders.

KT: You said that you are satisfied with the seriousness with which the minister is tackling the implementation of the law, how satisfied are you with the law itself?

TA: We have already discussed, on more than one occasion, the negative aspects of the law. There are parts in the law that contradict international labor standards. At the same time, we have to say that every country has the right to adopt its own legislation, entitling it to carry out its own development. Especially considering that it took 35 years to develop. Issuing a law with a few shortfalls is much better than not having it at all.  Also, we need to consider that this law was drafted for Kuwaiti workers as well. Although we are happy with the progress that took place, the legislation does not resolve all the issues that we expected to resolve.

Among the biggest concerns in the new labor law is that it excludes domestic laborers. The argument we frequently hear is that they are a special case. We are often told that a domestic laborer is considered part of the family; they live with the family, know all their secrets and they are treated like family. This argument can be accepted by some but not by us in the ILO, especially considering the fact that domestic labors still have no legal protection.

Frankly speaking, there are many people who attack the United State’s annual report on human rights. If Kuwait is low ranked, then a wave of anger starts in Kuwait. We need to understand that law is what regulates the relation between people. Maybe there are Kuwaitis whose rights are being violated by domestic workers. A law needs to be put in place so that it will preserve the rights of both the employer and employee, the right of the housemaid and the right of the sponsor. If you don’t have legislation it will be chaos. We are always accused of supporting housemaids and workers against their sponsor or employer. We say that our stance is for the best of both parties.

KT: Why do you think people always try to prevent their servants from having more freedom. Ever since the dawn of Islam, when masters where asked to have a separate day for prayer because they didn’t want to pray alongside their slaves, to the civil war in America and until now, there seems to be a pattern of resistance to reduce the power of a master over the servant. Why do you think this keeps happening?

TA: It’s human nature I believe. The world we are living in does not have distinguished differences and classes any more. Especially with all the mediums of communication that we have at present. When news from Kuwait is published we are contacted by organizations abroad and asked for a comment within hours. Everyone in the world now has the responsibility to be a humanitarian. I am saying this as a Kuwaiti first and as an ILO official second. We have moral obligations that need to be met. We need to find our shortcomings and resolve them without the need of external pressure. Why do we need to wait for pressure from the UN or the ILO or different Human Rights organizations to start adopting legislation to fix our problems. There is an internal demand before an external one.

I will give you an example. There are all of these talks about the development plan. I feel sad when I hear the arguments about where the funding should come from without paying attention to the fundamentals of the development plan; the human factor.  There needs to be human resources capable of carrying out this development plan successfully. How can all of these great projects and objectives be achieved without human development? I didn’t see anyone ask if there are people capable of carrying out this responsibility, or performing these great duties. Is this acceptable logic?

KT: Apart from the recent amendments to the labor law, and the way they are implemented, how do you see the general situation of the foreign laborers in Kuwait who make up about 2.5 million residents? Do you think that the unrest in Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh is unlikely to be repeated? Do you think the situation is stable? How would you evaluate it?

TA: Unfortunately, Kuwait never fixes the problem, it fixes the symptoms. When a protest or strike takes place in a company or corporation they look to the reason for the protest and find a solution for it but the main problem remains. For example, the Labor Law was issued because there was so much visa trading and Kuwait was accused of being a crossroad for human trafficking. Companies exploit their employees and withhold the wages of their employees. An international buzz was created about Kuwait and that’s why the Labor Law was adopted; to resolve the issue of migrant workers in Kuwait.

When it comes to national laborers working in the private sector, the law is not being implemented. The government is going ahead with their privatization plans and this requires additional legislation besides the Labor Law. Now there are corporations firing Kuwaiti employees. Terminations are taking place as a result of the privatization.  Companies that were earlier privatized in the oil sector are causing a problem now. Fuel station employees signed a contract with their companies that obligated their employers to apply the same conditions of employment that the government did, for five years after privatization. This period is ending on November 11. Just recently we were informed that around 30 Kuwaitis are going to be fired.

The question here is not only about the 30 workers. Other companies are going to be privatized, like the Kuwait Airways Corporation for example, It is a huge corporation with more than 1,000 employees. There will be privatization in other government sectors in the future. If we don’t find a way to deal with these 30 employees we will have a serious problem when we are faced with the termination of larger numbers. Kuwait has followed a bad model. In some countries that started down the privatization path, employees didn’t have any other solution than to sleep in front of their country’s parliament and wait for a resolution. Now I think there will be people camping in front of the National Assembly. Can Kuwait, with all its ambitions to transform into a financial and commercial hub, afford to maintain this view, this mentality, and this strategic outlook? I think not. Yes the labor law was passed, yes there are important and appreciated efforts, but it is not enough.

KT: You were talking about the government’s role in finding a solution for those who were fired from their jobs in the private sector. We all know that there is ‘disguised’ unemployment in Kuwait. In every government department, there are more employees than the actual work requirement. This is basically because the government is obliged to provide work for its citizens. Corporations on the other hand do not do so. They pay money in exchange of work. Why would they want to keep extra employees in newly acquired corporations and give them money just like that?

TA: First of all, we at the ILO defending the rights of all sides – government, employers and employees. What I say is that it is important to have a qualified work force by training qualified experts so that they are profitable to the private sector. The private companies care about profit, and if there are qualified workers, the (private) sector will be happy to employ them.

Young people in Kuwait proved themselves during the Iraqi occupation, and they worked in jobs no one thought they would be employed with. Kuwaitis are like any other nationals, you give them opportunity, instruments and motivation to be productive and they will be so. But now, there is no proper training and qualification, and the education levels are below average. In addition to that, the private sector is free from social responsibilities.

It should take part in development, not only in terms of how much they will benefit, but also on how much they can contribute. In Europe and the US, those corporations that take active part in social and economic welfare of the nation receive tax exemptions, so the private sector has to fulfill national responsibility. As part of it, more nationals should be recruited, not only invite whatever workforce is cheaper to work, and not give opportunities for citizens to learn and acquire experience.

KT: Do you think that the government is taking the easy way by delegating the responsibility of running ‘losing’ sectors to the private sector, instead of providing employees with proper training to be competitive and creative, and bring innovative reforms to the government sectors?

TA: I think that it is shameful that we try to blame the government for all the mistakes. There are other responsible parties, in the whole society, and the society is not just a government. We always say that we are a country of institutions, we have a constitution, we have an elected parliament, we have NGOs, we have unions, all of them are responsible. I also think that privatization should go in accordance with a strategic plan. The government needs to see what sectors are making profit and what sectors are not, and address this issue carefully. Kuwait needs to think if it is in its own interest to privatize some vital and strategic government sectors.

The state needs to start reconsidering its employment policy. Countries can no longer afford to pay a big portion of their revenues as salaries. This is not something that ILO, IMF or any other organization believes, this is what the whole world thinks now. The private sector is also benefiting a lot with billion KD tenders and projects. What is it giving back to the country? The issue of giving a percent of jobs to Kuwaitis, that end up as bogus contracts, is not good.

It is true that there is an Audit Bureau, but more important than the Audit Bureau is the Supervisory and Inspection Authority, to monitor companies and ensure that bogus jobs are detected. In general, there needs to be a set of legislations to address this issue, and there is an opportunity now.  As there is a multi-billion KD development plan, there is a chance to legislate and to consider the human resources as well. Other than that, it will be just profiteering for people who do not even deserve it , and do not produce anything that can help in the development of the country. Those people simply take the money and invest it outside the country. Inside, Kuwait remains the same with bumpy and stinking roads, shortage of water and electricity.

KT: The issue of unpaid overtime wages in Kuwait, how often do you receive complaints about that?

TA: It is not a matter of unpaid overtime wages. It is the working hours actually that we hear about a lot. For example in Kuwait Oil Company, there are those who work for 12 hours, and then they are supposed to rest for 12 hours, especially those that work in far away fields. The company instead places them on stand-by for another 12 hours. These stand-by hours are unpaid for, even though they have to be ready for work, and be present inside their work location, prepared to respond on short notice. We received a complaint from some employees in the company. And we are talking about Kuwaitis here, so we are in the process of trying to find a solution for this issue.

For non-Kuwaitis there are some payments, but it is not like the one that is recognized by the ILO, and they do not meet the international standards of labor. I must say that there are those whose rights are being violated. They are okay with that. We as an ILO, must say that we are not happy with this. We do not agree that the employer exploits the employee. At the same time, we do not agree that employees exploit their employers. We try to balance the rights of both parties, the rights of both employers and labors.

KT: According to your own experience, how would you describe this balance of rights between employers and employees in Kuwait?

TA: Unfortunately yes, there is a sort of imbalance for the benefit of employers.

KT: Do you think that foreign diplomatic delegations and embassies in Kuwait are doing enough to protect their citizens who work in Kuwait?

TA: Embassies are diplomatic entities, and the diplomatic norms are always present in their jobs. I will tell you frankly, if I were a non Kuwaiti I wouldn’t be able to say all of this. But what I say is for the benefit of Kuwait, my own country, not for my own benefit.

When I point out at a wrong behavior, my goal is that it be fixed, for the interest of the Kuwait labor market and Kuwait’s reputation. Many people always misunderstand that I am always concerned about the international aspect. For me that comes in the tenth place. I am mainly concerned about the local aspect and the implications of these mistakes in Kuwait. When I talk about human development I am talking about my own destiny, about the destiny of my children and grandchildren, and this is a righteous thing.

In addition to that, when I ask for equality between Kuwaitis and non Kuwaitis, I bear in mind that nothing ever stays the same forever. I personally remember when we were poor, and we were living on minimum and Allah gave us all of this fortune. So, you never know how life is going to change in the future. Kuwaitis need not think of themselves as angels who have come down from heaven. No one does. You need to give the rights of others so that Allah will give you your rights. If you can’t have this mindset, and are not mature enough to understand that, all the treasures of the world will not make you rich, and will not be enough for you.

I do not expect embassies to do more than what they are doing.  There are obligations on both parties, exporting and importing countries. Exporting countries also need to take care of those people that they send. If a man comes to work at an electrician’s shop and he does not know anything about electricity, there will inevitably be problems between him and his employer. Now it is starting to happen. Qualifying schools open where foreign workers learn about professions they engage in, as well as the traditions and culture of the host countries.

So you cannot just say that exporting countries only aiming to profit from citizens, and do anything to help them.  You also cannot place all the blame on Kuwait or other receiving countries. The obligations fall on both parties. There needs to be more communication and more co-ordination between those in charge in both countries. These countries benefit from their laborers abroad and they need to put some effort. Officials need to do more visits to see what the situation is like  for their citizens in  host countries, and to see where the shortage and errors lie and try to rectify it.

KT: Do you have a final word? Are there any future activities that the ILO has committed that you can tell us about?

TA: The deliberation and co-operation with regard to the labor law continues. The important thing after passing a law is to qualify experts who can carry out this legislation. There will be a number of workshops and other activities that come soon, in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. In addition to that, there is the issue of professional safety, which is an extremely important issue. The ministry has announced its intention to set up a center for professional and workplace safety. It will contribute towards raising awareness about the importance of this issue.  About the implementation of the labor law, there will be more cooperation with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, and the Kuwaiti Institute for Judicial Studies – to hold workshops for public prosecutors and judges. This is to learn the best practices that assure that implementation of labor law is in tandem with the international standard for labor practice.

Kuwait Times 2010

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