KUWAIT: Striking Kuwaiti oil workers arrive at the oil union’s headquarters in Ahmadi yesterday to protest alleged pay cuts and plans to privatize parts of the oil sector. — Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat
KUWAIT: Striking Kuwaiti oil workers arrive at the oil union’s headquarters in Ahmadi yesterday to protest alleged pay cuts and plans to privatize parts of the oil sector. — Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

KUWAIT: Thousands of Kuwaiti oil workers began an open-ended strike yesterday in protest at plans to cut their wages, action which saw the state’s crude production plunge. A spokesman for the Kuwait Oil Co (KOC), Saad Al-Azemi, said on Twitter that “average production reached 1.1 million” barrels in Kuwait yesterday. Daily production in OPEC’s fourth largest producer is normally around 3.0 million barrels per day. Azemi also said natural gas production was at 620 million cubic feet, down from Kuwait’s daily average of more than 1.3 billion cubic feet. Refinery production was also cut from 930,000 barrels a day to just 520,000 barrels.

The strike comes as world oil producers gathered in Qatar aiming to negotiate an output freeze to boost prices. “Thousands of workers began their strike,” the oil workers union chief Saif Al-Qahtani said, adding that production had been partly halted but without clarifying which sites were affected. “Observed since 7:00 am (0400 GMT), this open-ended strike will continue until the workers’ demands are met,” Qahtani said.

The Cabinet strongly criticized the “unacceptable” strike, calling it a “clear violation of the law”, entrusting involved agencies with taking legal action against “unacceptable practices”, and with bringing to accountability anybody involved in the disruption of the country’s vital utilities. The government also urged Kuwait Petroleum Corp (KPC) to mobilize the manpower needed to ensure continued production. KPC said it closed a petrochemicals plant in order to use the gas to supply power generation plants and insisted that domestic supplies and exports will not be affected.

Minister for Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Mohammad Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah said the strike was illegal as union members had refused to negotiate ahead of the stoppage. “The members of the union were contacted by the committee headed by the manpower bureau. The members of the union refused to talk with them and went on strike. So they are in breach of Kuwaiti law. They can’t strike without this (attempt at discussion),” he said. “With the oil price being what it is, and the fact that oil income is a huge part of the (national) income, it is very difficult if not impossible for the government to provide new financial incentives.”

Workers Demonstrate
Thousands of workers gathered for demonstrations at the start of the workweek in Ahmadi, where KOC has its headquarters. Protesters held signs reading “Stop meddling with the rights of the oil sector workers!” and “We will not allow you to take away our rights,” witnesses said. Adel Al-Fadhel, a spokesman for the Kuwait Oil Company Workers’ Union, said workers opted to picket after government officials failed to meet the unions’ demands to keep workers’ salaries and benefits untouched from government cutbacks. “The government rejected our proposals and is adamant on decreasing employee salaries. This is not acceptable,” he said.

On Saturday, the union turned down an appeal from acting oil minister Anas Al-Saleh to call off the strike. Hit by the sharp drop in crude prices on world markets, Kuwait is introducing a new payroll scheme for all public employees and wants to include the country’s 20,000 oil workers, which would mean an automatic cut in wages and incentives.

As the strike began, KPC spokesman Sheikh Talal Khaled Al-Sabah said that the national oil conglomerate had activated an “emergency plan” to ensure that local and international markets were not affected by the walkout. “Export operations are going ahead as planned and (KPC) is capable of responding to major international market demands, based on agreements with clients,” he said in a statement published on the KUNA news agency’s website.

The plan ensures that all petrol stations will continue to be supplied, as will Kuwait’s international airport and companies operating there, he said. He urged Kuwaitis “not to listen to rumors that the strike has affected the needs of the local market”. He said reserves of gasoline and petrol derivatives were “enough to meet the country’s demands for 25 days and strategic reserves could suffice for 31 more days”. KPC had offered to suspend all spending cuts if the union agreed to join a committee to negotiate a settlement, but said workers had boycotted negotiations called for Thursday by the social affairs and labor ministry. The union is also protesting against plans to privatize parts of the oil sector.

MPs Support Strike
Meanwhile, a number of lawmakers yesterday declared their total support for the strike, with some of them calling for the dismissal of CEO of Kuwait Petroleum Corp (KPC) Nezar Al-Adasani. MP Talal Al-Jallal called on the prime minister to immediately dismiss Adasani “because he is the cause of the current strike in the oil sector”. Jallal claimed that Adasani was not straightforward with oil employees and that he lied to them and that is what led to the strike.

The lawmaker claimed that appointments made by Adasani were based on influence rather than competence and this was another reason that caused the strike. Jallal called for opening new negotiations channels with the workers instead of confronting them.

MP Abdullah Al-Adwani said he supports the rights of workers and urged the government to find a fair solution to their problems that guarantees their rights, adding that he does not want the strike to continue. MP Saud Al-Huraiji held Saleh responsible for the failure to find a settlement to the dispute with oil workers, but rejected any shocks in the vital sector.

He called for MPs to intervene by holding a special parliamentary session in order to discuss the catastrophic consequences of the strike. Huraiji said he supports the fair demands of the workers but there are some unfair demands that cannot be supported. MP Youssef Al-Zalzalah said he believes that the two sides should sit together and settle the dispute peacefully, but also declared his support for workers to demand their rights through strikes.

Cabinet Condemns Strike
The Cabinet earlier urged all workers in the oil sector to show responsibility, sacrifice and positive responsible response by giving top priority to the country’s higher interest. It added that it had monitored, with deep sorrow and much resentment, the negative effects of the strike carried out by some oil workers since it targets the disruption of vital oil facilities.

The Cabinet also reviewed relevant dimensions, aftershocks, details and estimated losses, not to mention other direct and indirect harms that could damage the country’s reputation and status. It voiced full respect for all constitutional rights, mainly public liberties and freedom of expression, but within specific limits set out by law 11/1996, excluding the right to strike due to its serious impacts on public interest.

This makes the strike an illegitimate act and violation of the law, which should be resolutely addressed and requires legal action against all those involved, the Cabinet said. However, it appreciated the nature and significance of work and efforts of the workers of this vital oil sector, and highly commended all sincere efforts, distinguished efficient staff and all works of serious and sensitive nature at different positions and levels.

The country’s critical economic situation triggered by low oil prices and relevant adverse ramifications and challenges at present and in the future, requires that everybody should show national responsibility, sacrifice and positive responsible response to such challenges, and give top priority to higher interests, rather than narrow ones, it said.

Article 103 of Law 6/2010 regarding working in the private sector, which applies to the oil sector, stipulates that employers and their unions must respect all laws in the state and exercise their activities within specific goals, and regulate a dispute-settlement mechanism that does not include labor strikes, the Cabinet added. It emphasized that there should not be any threat to the country’s interests, reputation or status, warning that any threat cannot be condoned by all sincere and honest Kuwaitis.

Union Chiefs Stick to Guns
Qahtani and a number of other syndicate chairmen stressed that the strike would continue unless protestors’ demands were met. He also stressed that importing foreign laborers was against the law. Speaking at a press conference he attended along with other heads of oil employees’ syndicates, Qahtani demanded holding those responsible for creating the problem in the first place. He also called for ‘Kuwaitizing’ the oil sector.

Chairman of the Petrochemicals Industries employees’ syndicate Farhan Al-Ajmi excluded the likelihood of dissolving any of the oil unions or syndicates. “Such a decision will not be made unless by bullying and violating the law,” he stressed, noting that if the syndicates were dissolved through litigations, unionists would file counter lawsuits.

“Our boards of directors can be dissolved by either an extraordinary general assembly or by having the concerned ministry file a case before the comprehensive court,” he explained, underlining that the strike would not be called off even if the oil syndicates and unions were dissolved, because thousands of oil employees were taking part. He also dismissed threats of prosecuting those taking part in the strike because of their numbers. “The organizing committee decided carrying on with the strike despite the pressure on us,” he underlined.

Chairman of the KOC employees’ syndicate Salah Al-Marzouq said that the strike was held to protect employees’ rights. He also assured employees that the “leadership is not far and that it approved of these rights”. Head of KNPC’s employees’ syndicate Mohammed Faleh Al-Hajri stressed that the privileges they were being deprived of would add up to KD 150-180 million in a period of five years, while the daily losses resulting from the strike would be KD 300 million. “We have translated a letter with our demands and sent it to the International Labor Organization and will not call off the strike until those demands are met,” he underlined, calling for Kuwaitizing the oil sector and warning that demands would accelerate.

The head of Kuwait Oil Tankers Co employees’ syndicate Fayez Al-Mutairi labeled the protestors as the “first line of defending Kuwaiti citizens” and swore that they were all ready to be arrested, and that threats would not make them change their minds.