“Formal or informal, we are all workers”



In an interview with Equal Times, Gocha Aleksandria, Vice-President of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation, expresses his concerns about the new association agreement signed between the European Union and Georgia (along with Moldova and Ukraine) on 27 June 2014.

But no matter the sector or the industry, he says, unions can always mobilise workers, as proved when some 600 mini-bus drivers from the capital city of Tbilisi managed to organise and secure working rights.


The new association agreement signed on 27 June will, according to EU officials, strengthen the rule of law and open the markets “through the progressive removal of customs tariffs and quotas”, in view of a “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA)”. How do you feel about this agreement?

We welcome the agreement. We believe it could bring more “civilisation” into the economy, public order and the rule of law. But there are risks, mainly related to the free trade agreement.

In the absence of a comprehensive framework, this free trade agreement could result in the loss of many jobs by simply increasing the imports and reducing the exports of Georgian companies who are not very competitive. The risk is present in almost every sector besides, perhaps, heavy industries.

So we need to assess the situation in various areas, and respond accordingly.

During the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) World Congress in Berlin, you mentioned how unions in Georgia managed to organise workers in the local public transport of Tbilisi. Why did you decide to focus on this example?

The inner-city public transport is mainly operated by mini-vans and mini-busses. However, in most cities, it is not under the authority of the municipality or the public authorities. It is outsourced.

Every three years, the authorities organise a bidding process and issue the licence to a company. That company then finds a sub-contractor who will bring the vehicles, while another sub-contractor hires the drivers.

So it is almost like a supply-chain, with the most vulnerable element being the driver who has no contract, no hours of work defined and no fixed salary. The drivers also have to pay for the maintenance of the car and for the gasoline.

For us, it was an emblematic case because of the state Georgia was left in after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Public authority was in tatters, industrial production and infrastructures collapsed and private companies ruled freely. Organising a sector used by many and where the rule of law was so obviously absent therefore served to generate wider interest around union issues and the need to reinforce workers’ rights.

How did you organise them?

We transformed the informal relationship into a formal one. After analysing carefully the whole system we figured out that the municipality was, in the end, responsible for the drivers.

During the last bidding process, in 2010, we staged protest actions, including a two-day strike in the centre of Tbilisi, and carried information campaigns.

We managed to convince both the municipality and the licence holder to sign a memorandum with the transport workers’ union of Georgia, our affiliate.

Now we have a collective agreement with the licence holder, and the sub-contractors have been eliminated. The contracts are directly negotiated between the licence holder and the driver.

Why was it so important to organise the workers of an informal sector?

A worker is a worker. We cannot label people as ‘formal’ or ‘informal’.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) says that any worker, without any distinction, has the right to organise and to bargain collectively.

Also our own national legislation does know differentiate workers in the informal sector from those in the formal one.

That was a crucial point that we put forward and the municipality found itself legally trapped in a way.

Do you think that the way you organised the workers in Georgia can be replicated in other parts of the world?

No model can be exactly replicated but what we have learned is that the key thing to organise the informal sector is to identify the responsible person.

It does not matter if that person tries to escape responsibility. You have to hold it publicly responsible and blame it for the condition of the workers.

Nobody likes bad press.

My suggestion therefore would be to analyse the situation, identify the person responsible and then push forward the ILO Conventions 87 on the freedom of association and 98 on the right to organise and bargain collectively.