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Kuwait warns strikers as labor unrest stalls key oil exports
KUWAIT CITY (AP) ' Kuwait warned striking workers Tuesday that it could recruit outside replacements to confront a wave of labor unrest that has halted all shipping traffic and spread to the Gulf nation's critical oil sector.
Kuwaiti authorities have grown increasingly uneasy during a series of strikes begun last month by civil servants seeking greater pay and benefits ' on top of already generous perks such as free health care and low-rate personal loans. The protests mirror other instances of labor unrest rippling through the Arab world as part of a massive push for political and economic reform in the region.
Although Kuwait is one of OPEC's top oil exporters, officials say the country cannot afford to significantly boost the payroll of its huge public sector.
On Monday, more than 3,000 customs officers joined the strikes to sharply escalate pressure on the government. The open-ended walkout has frozen all shipping traffic in and out of ports and oil terminals. It also disrupted airport and land border operations.
In response, a government crisis team was formed to take "all necessary measures" to keep key industries functioning, according to a report on the official Kuwait News Agency. The report quoted Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Ali Al-Rashed was saying one option would bring in replacement workers from "in or outside Kuwait to carry out duties in an appropriate manner."
But government officials in Kuwait told striking workers they would not consider any demands while walkouts are taking place.
The strike did not immediately shake oil markets with fears of supply disruptions. The U.S. benchmark crude oil contract for November delivery hovered above $85 a barrel early Tuesday in electronic trading.
The strikes began last month after state oil workers received raises of between 15.5 percent and 66 percent after threatening to walk off the job. So far, strikes have hit banks and factories and almost grounded the state airline, Kuwait Airways, where union officials agreed to postpone any discussions on walkouts until next month, media reports said.
Last week, a group of firefighters tried to storm the main fire department building to demand workplace changes.
The director general of Kuwait's fire department, Maj. Gen. Jassem Al-Mansouri, said legal measures have been started against those involved in the "riots," the Kuwait News Agency said.
Kuwait has not been hit by major pro-reform demonstrations inspired by Arab uprisings, but the tiny Gulf nation stands out in the region because of its hardball political atmosphere. Kuwait's parliament has the most powers of any elected body in the Gulf and opposition lawmakers openly criticize the ruling family.
In January, Kuwait's emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, ordered 1,000 dinar ($3,559) grants and free food coupons for every Kuwaiti.
But the handouts have been since dwarfed by other Gulf rulers trying to use their riches to dampen calls for political reform. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has pledged about $93 billion for more civil servant jobs and services. Last month, Qatar announced pay and benefit hikes of 60 percent for public employees and up to 120 percent for some military officers.