Kuwait’s government was headed on a collision course with labour unions Tuesday as a strike by customs officers entered into its second day, hitting trade and threatening oil exports.
Tensions escalated after the government formed a special team headed by the interior minister to counter the effects of the strike and ensure the smooth delivery of public services.
The team has been authorised to seek assistance from within Kuwait and abroad to fulfil its mandate, according to an official statement issued following a cabinet meeting.
In response, Kuwait Labour Unions called for an emergency meeting Wednesday to “form a united front to face government repression of labour strikes,” according to a statement by the union.
Opposition MPs meanwhile lent their support to the striking workers and warned the government against intimidating those who are demanding their rights.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, opposition MP Musallam al-Barrak warned the interior minister against using the army or the national guard to replace the striking workers.
Another MP, Ali al-Deqbasi, said the strike was justified.
At a press conference Tuesday, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed al-Sabah described the situation as “dangerous” and said the strike must be confronted “firmly and decisively.”
More than 3,000 customs employees went on strike Monday demanding a pay raise and improved working conditions.
“The strike is still on and we will continue until our demands are fully met,” Fahhad al-Ajmi, board member of the customs trade union, told AFP.
Ajmi said that movement at Kuwait’s four border exit points with Saudi Arabia and Iraq, three commercial seaports and the only international airport, were “severely affected” and only humanitarian cases were allowed.
As many as 1,000 trucks loaded with fruits, vegetables and other goods “remained stranded at the border posts,” Ajmi said, adding that only passenger vehicles were inspected by customs officers.
The oil-rich desert state, OPEC’s third largest producer, depends almost entirely on imports to meet consumption needs, especially in the fresh produce sector.
National oil conglomerate Kuwait Petroleum Corp. (KPC) said Tuesday that oil exports were unaffected by the strike, reassuring clients of continued supplies.
“Exports of oil and petroleum products from Kuwaiti ports to international markets are proceeding normally,” the head of media at KPC Sheikh Talal al-Sabah said in a statement sent to AFP.
Kuwait pumps around 2.9 million barrels per day which generate an income that makes up around 94 percent of public revenues.
Ajmi insisted that “oil exports will be hit severely within the coming few days and could lead to a halt in production” if the strike is not resolved.
He claimed that about six to seven oil tankers have been barred from sailing out of Kuwait since Monday because customs officers refused to give them the necessary clearance to leave.
Head of the Customs Department, Ibrahim al-Ghanem on Monday called on workers to end their strike with a promise from Finance Minister Mustafa al-Shamali to meet their demands but the employees refused.
Ajmi said that fresh appeals were made by the minister Monday night but the workers again rejected his offer.
“We will not end our strike until the government issues a clear statement accepting our demands in full,” Ajmi said.
Kuwait has been hit by a spate of industrial action in the public sector, which employs close to 80 percent of the 360,000-strong workforce of Kuwaiti nationals.
The country has about 1.7 million foreign workers, mostly employed by the private sector.
The Gulf state, with 1.2 million Kuwaiti citizens, is tax-free and offers a cradle-to-grave welfare system with public services and fuel offered either free or at heavily subsidised prices.