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KUWAIT CITY, June 11: An official in Kuwait Municipality received a call from a senior leader of a ministry, asking for urgent support with cleaners to work in the ministry. Given that the cleanliness of the ministries’ buildings is not within the competence of the municipality, the official kindly apologized to the leader, and asked him to address the shortage in the ministry in accordance with the contracts and mechanisms used in the ministries, reports Al-Qabas daily.
Such a distress call that the municipality official received was not the first of its kind. Other leaders in several ministries have made similar requests, and received the same answer.
So, what is the story behind the ministries’ cleaners?
The first chapter of this matter began with the decision of the Council of Ministers to reduce the ministries’ budgets for the 2020/2021 fiscal year by a minimum of 20 percent. In order to rationalize the budget, government agencies resorted to postponing projects and tenders and reducing expenses. The rationalization took a long time to reduce the value of all cleaner contracts in some ministries.
The same thing was repeated in the budget for the 2021/2022 fiscal year, as the Ministry of Finance directed the state agencies to reduce contracts for non-essential services, which include cleaner contracts, by 50 percent, as part of the austerity steps to confront the budget deficit.
Undoubtedly, the effects of the austerity measures did not appear at the time, but they gradually began appearing with the repercussions of the emergence of the COVID-19 spread.
The pandemic exacerbated the shortage of cleaners, especially with the decision issued to stop work visas. Accordingly some companies requested the ministries for a reduction in the number of contracted workers and justified their request by the following reasons:
1. Severe shortage of workers,
2. Circumstances imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic,
3. Workers leaving the country and not being able to return, and
4. Resignations of workers in companies.
Despite the objectivity of the companies’ justifications, as acknowledged in an official letter, some ministries did not hesitate to impose the fines stipulated in the contracts according to the systems in force.
In mid-February, the dire reality of cleaner contracts collided with the Cabinet’s decision to reduce the COVID-19 restrictions and return to normalcy with full capacity. This led to the hidden details of the matter being revealed, and every ministry started looking for solutions.
Official correspondences and reports began to reach the officials’ table, and with it came unpleasant surprises, which were:
1. Most of the contracts with cleaning companies have expired or on the verge of expiring,
2. No prior directives were issued to renew contracts, which led to the freezing of the situation,
3. A serious defect in the implementation of current contracts due to corporate violations and the COVID-19 repercussions,
4. A clear shortage in the number of workers, with the workers’ strikes increasing the burden.
Nonetheless, what about the new tenders for cleaners? A question was put on the negotiating table, and the answer was that there is a great slowness in the procedures for its submission, reaching the point of suspending the awarding of the tender for more than five years. In fact, it has not been awarded so far.
Some parties moved to overcome this reality by resorting to the exceptional solution of requesting the extension of the existing cleaner contracts despite their stumbling, until the extension of some contracts reached 13.
However, the option to extend the contracts was not easy, as companies were unable to do what they described as a breach of the terms of the contract by the concerned ministries.
They stressed that nothing obliges them to renew contracts without guarantees provided by the concerned authority to pay what they see as overdue that have not been paid to them.
Some companies set conditions for accepting the extension of their contracts, including the following:
1. Disbursement of wages unpaid during the COVID-19 crisis,
2. Undo the signing of fines without a bond,
3. Pay the labor wage differences resulting from the increase in the minimum wage for the worker.
In the search for radical solutions to the issue to end its ramifications, a team from one of the ministries prepared a set of recommendations.
It stressed the need to eliminate the long documentary cycle and expedite the awarding of new tenders, as well as cope with the delay in approving annual budgets, which disrupts the financial linkage of contracts.
After a long marathon of discussions, consultations and partial decisions to alleviate the problem related to cleaners in the ministries, the meetings broke up, and the reports settled in the officials’ drawers. The crisis remained stuck between the hammer of austerity and spending cuts and the anvil of what COVID-19 had brought on the employment conditions.