A new path emerges for the Georgian labour movement

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Looming over the Zestafoni Ferroalloy Plant, in the industrial heartland of Western Georgia, the rundown executive offices of Georgian American Alloys’ local branch conjures up the image of a once powerful Soviet production site now struggling for a share of the globalised economy.

With the help of a marker and a whiteboard, Ukrainian company director Vasyl Gerega tries to demonstrate the kind of competition his factory is up against.

“My workers are not productive,” Gerega tells Equal Times. He explains that 450 workers in a US-based plant produce an average of 100,000 metric tons of silicomanganese a year, a crude alloy used to the production of iron and steel.

His 2,000 Georgian employees produce just half that amount in the same period.

So when the discussion moves on to the various strikes and industrial actions spearheaded by an independent labour union over the last five years, the director rushes to his whiteboard again.

Only this time he argues that with a monthly average salary of 750 Georgian lari (US$430), Georgian workers are paid double what their colleagues in Ukraine get, and therefore have nothing to worry about.

“The workers are never satisfied and are constantly exaggerating,” he says before adding: “If they are not happy here, they should just go somewhere else.”

These comments illustrate the type of obstacles faced by the Georgian labour movement, as it strives to overcome a decade of ultraliberal rule under Mikheil Saakashvili and to grant workers full recognition of the rights enshrined in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions − 64 of which Georgia has not yet ratified.

Since Giorgi Margvelashvili took over as president in November 2013, this task has been made easier by a less repressive administration and an improved labour code.

Introduced last year, the new law fixed many of the issues that landed Georgia on the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) Countries at Risk watch list, but it still falls short of what the Georgian unions expected.

Amongst the remaining grievances are: the complete absence of labour inspectors; fragile maternity protection; restrictions on the right to strike; insufficient social dialogue.

“Despite these improvements, many workers still don’t know their rights,” declares Kakha Machitidze, Chairman of the Zestafoni chapter of the Georgian Trade Union of Metallurgy, Mining and Chemical Industry Workers.

When he and other workers set up their union in 2009, they applied the information and training skills imparted by the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC). Organisers talked to workers during their lunch breaks and after work, listening to their concerns and convincing them of the benefits of joining the union. “We acted like in the movie Norma Rae,” Machitidze recalls laughing.

It was no easy feat in a country where, after decades of Soviet rule, unions are often perceived as organisations serving the interests of the powers that be.

Still, Machitidze insists some 800 workers were initially seduced by the idea, after being repeatedly disappointed by a “yellow union” with close ties to the management. But after the company “threatened people with dismissal”, many employees backed down and the union now counts some 500 members.

Although only representing a quarter of the workforce, the union clashed head-on with the factory employer on numerous occasions over issues such as salary, collective bargaining rights, overtime compensation, resting facilities, drinkable water and workplace safety.

It also organised protests, petitions, media campaigns and a series of successful strikes that eventually led to a collective agreement.

As a result, some improvements were made and the factory managers were eager to show Equal Times a new canteen, a small grocery store and a state of the art control room.

But behind the modern façade, the rusty machinery operated by some employees seems to corroborate allegations of a risky work environment.

And despite increases to their salary, the workers interviewed unanimously respond that 750 lari per month is not enough to meet the cost of living.


Organising workers

“If you want to organise workers in a hotel, how do you find your first contact person?” asks Aaron Chappell, the coordinator for the ITUC’s organising academy, to a group of 20 Georgian volunteers.

Once person responds: “I would go there as a normal tourist, and engage a friendly talk with a cleaner”.

The answer furrows the eyebrows of another participant who wonders how such expenses will be covered, stirring an intense debate in the group.

The three-day workshop held in the coastal town of Kobuleti, organised by the GTUC in cooperation with the ITUC, intends to build the next generation of labour organisers and hopefully emulate the successes of the Zestafoni factory.

“We want to build unions from the ground up, with organisers,” says Lasha Bliadze, the head of administration at the GTUC. “Because without proper organising, we will not be able to protect the people.”

The GTUC currently represents 140,000 workers but only counts 15 organisers. The confederation wants to increase that number to about 70 in order to penetrate sectors where union membership is low and workers’ rights not respected.

Some of the targeted businesses are the banking sector, hotels and restaurants, especially in the autonomous region of Adjara, where tourism is booming.

Nino Stambolishvili, a 27-year-old cosmetic shop employee says she is very enthusiastic about the training she received and wants to start putting it to practice in restaurants in her hometown of Batumi, Adjara’s capital.

“The people working there have many problems. They are not paid well, have no contracts and often have to work overtime without compensation,” says Nino.

“I will use some of the contacts I have to try and organise the workers.”

Another participant, Tengiz Dvalishvili, is an experienced union organiser who participated in last year’s Georgian railway strikes.

He claims he had no theoretical knowledge about organising, but that the workshop made him realise the need for a more structured approach.

Vitali Giorgadze, president of the Georgian Railway Workers New Trade Union (GRWNTU), credits organisers like Tengiz for registering some 5,000 union members, out of a total of 13,000 railway workers in Georgia.

But despite achieving a collective agreement with management a year ago, Giorgadze laments, “not a single promise has been delivered.”

“Our major priority now is to get more workers. We want to reach everyone at work, at home, at parties. We also need to identify potential leaders.”

Leadership, as a key component of union organising, is also constantly scrutinised in the Kobuleti group by Emily Paulin, the organising coordinator for the Countries at Risk programme of the ITUC. She believes some of the participants have the potential to successfully unionise their respective sectors.

“Take this experience back to the workplace,” she tells the aspiring organisers.

“And I hope the GTUC’s pool of organisers will expand the rights of other Georgians.”


“Unions should take their business somewhere else”

The idea of organising seems to strike a different chord with some members of the Trade Union Confederation of Adjara Autonomous Republic.

In an effort to reach out to hotel workers in Batumi, they simply went to workplaces and distributed leaflets explaining workers’ rights and what the union could do for them.

Nobody called back.

According to Ilia Verdzadze, chairperson of the union: “The problem in Adjara is that, as a tourist destination, there are a lot of seasonal workers with short-term contracts. It makes it harder to build relations”.

With 202 rooms, the Sheraton is the largest hotel in Batumi. It employs more than 180 permanent workers throughout the year, and up to 250 during the summer season.

But most of the temporary summer workers are students says the Turkish General Manager Omer Subasi.

Subasi does not understand the need for a union in his hotel, declaring: “All my employees are happy to be here. Our standards are much better than any other local standards.”

He claims the Sheraton workers are well-paid, provided with health insurance and paid overtime, before adding: “unions should take their business somewhere else.”

However, judging from the ambition of Georgia’s labour movement and the upcoming inauguration of vast tourist facilities like the Batumi Hilton, that scenario seems highly improbable.