The deregistration of an independent trade union by a Kazakh court has led to the recent arrest of two trade union leaders, as well as an escalating hunger strike by oil workers in the west of the country.
On 4 January 2017, an economic court in southern city of Shymkent ordered the national closure of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK) by 4 February for its failure to re-register branches in at least nine of the country’s 16 regions.
Worker unrest followed and on 20 January, oil workers’ leader Amin Yeleusinov and his deputy chairperson Nurbek Kushakbaev were both arrested for calling for strike action.
Under a prohibitive new trade union law adopted in 2014 – and which was roundly condemned for violating international standards – all national trade unions have to register at a regional level in over a half of the country’s provinces within six months of their establishment.
After numerous delays, the KNPRK was finally registered in February 2016 but labour bodies and human rights organisations say its attempts to comply with the new rules were consistently undermined.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) gives the example of some unions receiving “more than 25 rejections, none justified by law, before their request for registration was granted”.
KNPRK affiliate unions representing medical and domestic workers have also been deregistered, which – if the court decision is not reversed – will make these trade unions illegal.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the 4 January court ruling as an “egregious violation” of basic, internationally guaranteed workers’ rights, and called for it to be quashed.
“By shutting down this trade union organisation the authorities have taken a worrying step backwards,” said Hugh Williamson, the Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, in a statement on 10 January. “Kazakhstan has made an international commitment to protect freedom of association, but this decision does the opposite.”
The response of the country’s trade unions has been mixed. Observers put this down to the crackdown on independent trade union leaders from the authorities, and fears that more leading unionists and their families could suffer from the kind of retaliation that Yeleusinov and Kushakbaev have experienced.
Immediately after the 4 January judgment, for example, KNPRK president Larisa Kharkova criticised the conduct of the proceedings, stating that her union had been denied all opportunities to present its case in court. However, a few days later she changed tack.
“We could not unionise the necessary number of members so the Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit to refuse registration and dissolve the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan which is, in our opinion, grounded [from a legal point of view],” Kharkova told a news conference in Shymkent on 12 January.
Some workers, however, have been unequivocal in their response to the revocation. About 90 workers from the Oil Construction Company LLP in the oil-rich Mangystau Region in the west of the country went on a hunger strike on 5 January.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, hundreds more workers from other oil services companies have since joined the protest, taking the number of hunger strikers to more than 400.
The workers are demanding that the ruling Nur Otan party reinstates the KNPRK, although the Nur Otan’s regional branch denies ever having received any petitions from oil workers.
Oil industry unrest
Kazakhstan’s oil and gas industry has been the site of much of the country’s labour unrest in recent years. Despite consistently ranking amongst the world’s top 15 oil producers, and despite the fact that the sector contributes more than 60 per cent to the national GDP, the global oil downturn has resulted in reduced pay and reduced hours for workers in the sector.
In addition, in December 2011, the oil town of Zhanaozen in the Mangystau Region, was the site of one of the worst massacres in Kazakh history when several months of demonstrations for better pay and better working conditions resulted in the deaths of at least 14 protestors at the hands of police.
Although the KNPRK had supported the 2011 oil strikes, Kharkova urged the current hunger strikers to stop their actions as “it will not produce anything but people will suffer”.
However, Kharkova has been under considerable pressure from the authorities, including a search of her home, a raid on her offices, the confiscation of her computer and new embezzlement charges.
“Police officers threatened to take further action against Kharkova unless she steps down as confederation president,” said HRW. “The union views the case against Kharkova as an act of intimidation to deter the union from appealing the decision to shut it down.”
Risk of “radicalisation and destabilisation”
Anton Leppik, executive secretary of the Pan-European Regional Council of the ITUC, told Equal Times that ever since the events in Zhanaozen in 2011, the Kazakh authorities have treated industrial action as a “security threat”. But by removing restrictions on trade union freedom, the government could deescalate the risk of further conflict.
“By closing legal opportunities for people to join union organisations by their own choice and to promote their interests through it, the government is only creating the conditions for further radicalisation and destabilisation.”
Such restrictions are a “flagrant violation” of Kazakhstan’s commitments under the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 87 on freedom of association, said Leppik.
The government’s failure to implement ILO standards could eventually lead to the closure of the different programmes and activities run in Kazakhstan by the UN labour body, Leppik opined, adding that this non-compliance might also damage Kazakhstan’s cooperation with the European Union, the OECD, the World Bank and other international financial institutions.
“The loss of reputation as a trustful partner that respects its commitments – that other national and international partners do respect – would certainly have implications on [Kazakhstan’s] international cooperation and projects. We saw that in Belarus.”
HRW urged Kazakhstan’s key economic partners, including the European Union, its member states, and the United States, to press the government to quash the liquidation of the KNPRK and to make sure the country upholds its international obligations to respect workers’ rights.
“If Kazakhstan wants to fulfil its global ambitions, also as an international investment hub, it should start by upholding international labour standards,” Williamson said.