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Two years after Zhanaozen, government of Kazakhstan plans law to bring unions under full state control

18 December 2013 Feature
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In response to the lethal police assault on striking oil workers in the western Kazakhstan town of Zhanaozen two years ago, democratic trade unions immediately called for the establishment of legal institutions to protect and encourage the expression and resolution of labour disputes on the basis of democratic representation and genuine collective bargaining. Now the authoritarian government of Nursultan Nazarbayev is moving to establish total state control of the country’s trade unions.

The proposed trade union law recently introduced into the Majilis (Parliament) recycles the draft sent for “technical comments” to the ILO earlier this year. The proposed legislation was strongly criticized by the ILO’s Committee of Experts in a June 2013 memorandum as incompatible with freedom of association. The ILO particularly criticized those sections of the law that mandate affiliation and direct vertical subordination of territorial, regional and workplace trade unions to national sector-based unions. “It seems”, says the Memorandum, “that it is impossible to create an ‘autonomous’ trade union organization at the workplace level outside this predetermined structure.” The ILO emphasized that the draft law “introduces a trade union monopoly at the sector level, i.e. it requires that a [sector-based] union shall be created by at least half of all the workers or organisations [in the sector] or that such a union shall have its structural units in more than half of the country’s regions, towns of national significance, and in the capital”.

The Committee of Experts also highlighted the proposal’s broad powers to prohibit unions for public sector workers and impose strict limitations on the right of unions to negotiate and to strike.

Having failed to win ILO approval for this attempt to extinguish independent worker organizations, the government did a bit of cosmetic tweaking and has now reintroduced a bill which conserves the features singled out for criticism by the ILO..

Democratic organizations of Kazakhstan workers, including the IUF-affiliated Almaty Agro-Industrial Workers’ Union, the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Kazakhstan and the Confederation of Labour of Kazakhstan rightly perceive this proposed monopolistic structure as a direct threat to freedom of association, a violation of international labour standards and their capacity to continue fighting for the rights and interests of their members. They have called on the government to revise the draft and proposed amendments which incorporate the ILO’s fundamental criticisms. They are calling for a labour reform which can protect workers’ democratic and civil rights and encourage the development of unions which can respond to the democratic aspirations of the country’s workers.

The fate of the Zhanaozen prisoners highlights the determination of the country’s workers to fight for their rights, the strength of the power they confront and the need for ongoing international support.