It is more than two decades since the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics disappeared from the global map. Many of the nations that broke away from what was once the biggest country in the world proclaimed they would follow a market-oriented path. As a result of the liberal reforms that took place, workers’ and trade union rights came under enormous pressure. Here is a closer look at some of the most recent developments in the region.
Text: Alexander Ivanou
In Azerbaijan, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) notes that despite improved legal guarantees in the Labour Code of 1999, transnational companies are frequently violating workers’ rights by concluding fixed-term contracts for one to three months; depriving workers of annual leave days; imposing overtime with no extra pay; and failing to transfer social insurance dues. Furthermore, employers often prevent workers from creating trade unions with threats of dismissal.
Workers in Belarus have been put on the leash of precarious employment. In 1999, Alexander Lukashenko, President of the Republic of Belarus issued the notorious decree No. 29 allowing employers to use fixed-term contracts for all categories of workers. The decree, which is a national law, has made it possible for employers to gradually force almost all workers in Belarus into a wicked system of precarious employment. The luckiest 35 per cent of workers sign their contracts for five years, 30 per cent conclude three-year contracts and another third are obliged to renew their contracts annually. There is also evidence of even shorter-term contracts for some groups of workers. The system allows the employer to get rid of a worker that disagrees with company policy or tries to establish an independent union organization at no cost. For a trade union it is extremely difficult to reinstate a worker who has been fired, as employers will simply say the worker’s contract has expired, even though it might previously have been renewed many times over.
Trade union oppression in Belarus also allows employers to get rid of a local union by failing to confirm its address in the course of registration, which is legally binding for any organization. Consequently, people working for a non-registered union can be imprisoned. Recognizing the dangers of precarious employment and the threat to workers, independent unions submitted a complaint to the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2000 against violation of trade union and workers’ rights. The ILO has since made several recommendations to the Government of Belarus and sent a number of missions to the country, most recently in January 2014. Unfortunately, the latest mission reported “no fundamental change or significant progress in implementing the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations to amend the legislation in force.” The mission furthermore noted, “While some previously raised problems have become less acute, new problems have arisen.”
Despite positive amendments introduced in July 2013 to Georgia’s much criticized Labour Code, freedom of association remains a serious concern. Although the law prohibits discrimination based on trade union association, it does not set in place clear mechanisms protecting workers against anti-union discrimination. What’s more, the right to strike for some groups of workers remains under prohibition or seriously hindered because of an extremely difficult and compulsory conciliation process.
In March 2013, proposed amendments to the Labour Code and the law on trade unions were jointly submitted to the Moldovan Parliament by the American Chamber of Commerce, the National Confederation of Moldovan Employers and the European Business Association on the grounds that they would improve the investment climate in the country. If enacted, the amendments would remove the legal guarantees granted to trade union members and elected trade union leaders, making it easier for an employer to dismiss activists.
In 2011, workers of the Kazakh oil company KazMunaiGas (formerly Kazakhoil) went on strike. Due to inactivity by the authorities, bordering on complicity with the oil company, the labour dispute escalated into bloody riots in Zhanaozen, which left 17 people dead and many wounded.
The ensuing trial, orchestrated by Kazakh authorities in March 2012, sentenced 37 people to prison or other punishment. Under the pressure of the international community, two of seven imprisoned workers were released. Three people, including Roza Tuletaeva, the only woman, were moved to a colony-settlement, while Shabdal Utkilov and Kanat Zhusipbaev remain in custody.
Ex-Karaganda governor, Sultan Kaliev, proposed as a candidate by the Government, was elected as the new president of the Federation of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (FPRK). One of his very first actions was to establish a national union in the oil and gas sector, and there is high a risk that the IndustriALL Global Union affiliate will be forced into joining this new structure.
In September 2013, a new bill on trade unions was submitted for consideration by the Kazakh parliament. The bill, which would introduce compulsory registration of trade unions while imposing a membership threshold, is clearly oriented at the strangulation of unions that are not FPRK members.
Strikers in Kyrgyzstan could face up to 15 years in jail if a set of proposed amendments to the Criminal Code is passed by parliament. The proposals would mean that directors and staff of strategically important enterprises could be imprisoned for up to 15 years if accused of being the reason for the failure or stoppage of production.
IndustriALL believes, if adopted, the amendments would be a blatant violation of international and constitutional norms according to which workers enjoy their right to strike. The Criminal Code bill is scheduled for consideration by parliament in April 2014.
The new labour code, adopted by the Russian Duma (parliament) in 2001, came under fire from the ILO and ITUC for prohibiting collective bargaining by a trade union unless it represents over 50 per cent of the workforce, therefore locking out minority unions. The labour code also undermines the right to strike through a complicated procedure which outlaws strikes in solidarity for other workers as well as all national strikes which make direct demands to the Government.
In 2009, the Constitutional Court, under the pretext of applying the principle of equal rights to all Russian citizens, adopted new amendments to labour legislation allowing employers to dismiss or punish trade union leaders through compulsory transfer to another job without preliminary consent from a trade union.
At the time of going to print, the situation in Ukraine remains unpredictable. Before the clashes at Maidan Square at the end of 2013, unions were fighting the International Monetary Fund, which was promoting reform that would decrease unions’ capacity to protect members and exclude minority unions from tripartite dialogue. IndustriALL continues to monitor the situation and assist affiliates in the development of counteractive measures.
Liberal reforms, of which precarious employment is the most serious, are being encouraged by the governments in countries that made up part of the former Soviet Union. The aim is to attract foreign and national capital, as well as safeguard power. To achieve this goal many governments have chosen to crush the power of the unions that might resist liberal reforms. The future of the trade union movement in the region depends entirely on its capacity to build an adequate resistance.