In 1998, the labor force was estimated at 1.3 million workers, many of whom were not Kuwaiti nationals. In 2002, 93% of the domestic workforce was employed by the public sector, while foreign workers make up 94% of the private workforce. The government-owned oil industry dominates the economy. The unemployment rate was under 2% in 1996, the last year in which statistics were available.
Although workers are legally permitted to join unions, less than 5% of the labor force are union members. Virtually all are affiliated with the Kuwait Trade Union Federation, the only trade federation allowed by law. The government performs a pervasive supervisory role of all unions, both subsidizing union expenses and carefully monitoring union activities. The right to strike is severely limited, and strikes rarely occur. About 10% of union members are foreign workers, but foreign workers must be in Kuwait for five years before they join a union and then may not vote in elections or hold official positions. The right to strike is limited.
In general, all workers are entitled to a 48-hour workweek, compensation for overtime, sick leave, termination pay, and access to arbitration for settlement of disputes. However, many laborers from developing countries are willing to tolerate poor or unhealthy working conditions in order to earn a wage significantly higher than in their own countries. The minimum working age is 18, although children who are at least 16 may work limited hours in non-hazardous occupations. Foreign workers must be at least 18 to work in Kuwait. In 2002, the public sector minimum wage was about $742 per month for citizens and $296 per month for non-citizens. Health and safety standards are lax in regard to foreign workers.