By Hugh Williamson*
Things are getting serious again in western Kazakhstan. This oil-rich region on the Caspian Sea was the scene over several months in 2011 of prolonged labor unrest, culminating in clashes that December that killed at least a dozen people.
The shock waves from this violence led to government pledges to improve labor relations and to “modernize trade union institutions.” Now, again, in the midst of winter, there are more labor protests and another crackdown.
Kazakhstan sees itself as a regional hub for foreign investment, but Astana could experience unintended consequences if it continues on this path.
What went wrong?
The steps the government took after 2011 are a key source of the problem. Rather than improving conditions for labor organizing, a trade union law adopted in 2014 made it more difficult for independent unions to form and operate. The law is so restrictive it violates fundamental labor standards upheld by the International Labor Organization (ILO). Human Rights Watch research shows that the authorities have since 2014 placed repeated technical and legal barriers in the path of independent unions. Officials have harassed union representatives, some activists have been forced out of their jobs, and security services have spied on them.
One alarming consequence: The country’s largest independent trade union confederation, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, has, despite repeated efforts, been unable to fully register under the law. As a result, a court in southern Kazakhstan on January 4 shut down the confederation, at the request of the Justice Ministry. The government also banned three affiliated unions – for domestic workers, health care employees and metalworkers.
The ruling to close down the union confederation triggered the recent protests. Within days, more than 400 oil workers went on a hunger strike in protest. They were also angry at criminal charges of embezzlement raised against the confederation president Larisa Kharkova. The charges appear aimed at forcing her to resign, which she has refused to do.
Authorities have now banned the hunger strike as “illegal,” charged a union leader with embezzlement and another with calling for an illegal strike. Officials also have handed down hefty fines to dozens of strikers. These are difficult times for Kazakhstan’s oil industry and its workers, and there was a wave of strikes in 2016. Lower oil prices have caused hardship and fears of job losses. In some cases local authorities, unions and companies have worked together to solve labor disputes. Yet the government’s aggressive response to the most basic demands of workers persists – in blatant violation of international labor rights norms Kazakhstan has voluntarily agreed to follow.
The government’s heavy-handed control of society, including on labor issues, has certainly been intensifying. This causes lots of experts to ask why Kazakhstan is taking such an approach, given that it appears to clash with the government’s best interests?
While clamping down on union activity, the government is also prioritizing its openness to international investment and readiness to take responsibility on the international stage, as this month’s Syria talks in Astana show. Its international plans could be undermined, if its abusive approach to labor rights persists.
Many foreign investors, in Kazakhstan and elsewhere, recognize the importance of upholding international labor standards. This approach sits awkwardly with Kazakhstan’s blatant labor restrictions. Foreign companies, like local ones, have their own problems with Kazakhstan’s laws, which force them to join a state-controlled employers’ association – a concern also highlighted by the ILO.
Kazakhstan has been a member of the UN Security Council since January 1. In his speech marking the country’s council membership, President Nursultan Nazarbayev listed human rights promotion as a key priority.
Yet now, Astana is facing renewed sanction from the ILO, another part of the UN. In 2015 and again in 2016, the ILO’s top decision-making body, the International Labor Conference, reprimanded Kazakhstan over violations of core ILO conventions, relating to the 2014 trade union law. In both years, it demanded that Astana change the law. Astana refused, irritating many governments active in the ILO.
The ILO concerns closely echoed the conclusions of a January 2015 country visit by the UN’s top expert on free association, who sharply criticized restrictions on nongovernmental organizations and trade unions. January’s intensified labor crackdown could mean Kazakhstan will again be in the ILO’s spotlight this year – hardly a positive prospect for a country determined to impress a global audience.
Kazakhstan’s top priority in the economic sphere is to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based club of rich nations. President Nazarbayev’s mantra – that Kazakhstan should be among the world’s top 30 economic powers by 2050 – hinges on hitting OECD targets.
Kazakhstan hopes this year to be allowed to join several OECD committees as a stepping stone to future membership. Yet this will also come at a price: respect for labor and social standards is judged important for OECD members, as is consultation with independent trade unions – so heavy restrictions on labor rights could count against Astana’s ambitions.
Kazakhstan may soon experience negative international blowback as a consequence of its crackdown on independent union organizing. Let’s hope the country’s leaders change course, to one that respects basic labor and human rights.
*Hugh Williamson is director, Europe & Central Asia division, Human Rights Watch.