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Georgia Under Pressure to Change Labour Laws
Demonstration for better employment rights, Tbilisi, January 2012. (Photo: Georgian Confederation of Trade Unions)
Trade unions, non-government groups and international institutions are pressing the Georgian government to reform the country’s labour laws, saying the current regulations do too little to protect workers.
Dozens of activists from trade unions and the radical student group Laboratory 1918 gathered on January 17 for a protest in the centre of the capital Tbilisi.
“The [labour] code makes it possible to effectively enslave workers, sack them for any reason and manipulate them using threats of dismissal. This code should protect people’s basic rights, but it’s unacceptable,” a statement from protest organisers said.
The current labour code, passed in 2006, has been heavily criticised by international organisations.
In 2010, the International Labour Organisation urged the government to strengthen employee protection by outlawing the practice of sacking staff for joining a union and requiring employers to provide a reason for dismissal.
European Union officials, meanwhile, have expressed concern at restrictions on collective bargaining and the right to set up independent trade unions.
In its assessment of Georgia’s progress under the European Neighbourhood Policy last year, the EU said the country needed to reform labour laws, particularly with regard to creating trade unions, protecting workers from discrimination, and the right to strike.
A report drawn up by the EU suggested that relations with Georgia could be at risk if it failed to introduce more protections for workers. In particular, it said, failure to respond to concerns about the state’s non-compliance with core international conventions could jeopardise Georgia’s inclusion in the General System of Preferences (GSP+), under which it enjoys improved terms of trade with Europe.
Such criticism has been picked up by labour activists in Georgia.
Irakli Petriashvili, chairman of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation, said, “The labour code has been the object of fierce criticism from international organisations for several years, yet the authorities are taking no steps to improve it.”
Petriashvili argues that the current labour code is designed to protect the interests of employers rather than those who work for them.
“Workers are effectively in a state of bondage and powerlessness. Employers have the right to sack employees at any time without prior warning or explanation, including for discriminatory reasons such as union membership. There have been many case of that,” he said. “Because employers aren’t required to give a reason for dismissal, workers cannot demonstrate in court that they are victims of discrimination.”
Petriashvili said the code permitted verbal contracts, whose existence is impossible to prove in law in the event of a dispute. In addition, it does not specify a maximum number of working hours per week, and restricts the right to strike, form unions and negotiate collectively.
The trade union confederation has a legal aid service for members, and Petriashvili said typical complaints included unlawful dismissal, being made to work long hours, wages paid in arrears, and breaches of terms of employment.
The parliamentarians who drafted the code, including deputy speaker Gigi Tsereteli, argue that it will take time for the rules to bed in before any deficiencies can really be proven.
According to Tsereteli, “When Georgia passed this labour code, the country was in a specific situation – we were very active in reforming the economy and social sector. There was a lot of emphasis placed on investment and on opportunities to create jobs, so we placed the emphasis on legislation capable of stimulating growth.”
“Our legislation covers all the minimum standards laid out in international law,” he insisted. “We aren’t hiding the fact that our labour code is geared more towards the employers, but I want to underline that this does not mean workers are unprotected.”
Tsereteli conceded that laws in EU states gave workers there greater protection, especially if they were union members. But he added, “We have a rather different history of development and our economy is different from European ones. And now we can see that even Europe isn’t doing too well – many European countries are going through problems, and many of the current regulations are being questioned.”
Tsereteli said that he had never met anyone who was really unhappy with the labour code.
“I think anyone with qualifications will be valued by any company – private or state-owned – and employers will always try to hang onto people like that,” he said.
Protesters said views like this were out of touch.
“I don’t know where they found people who are happy with the code, apart from the big businesses and employers for whom it was designed,” said Shota, a 28-year-old from Tbilisi. “In August 2008, when the country was at war [with Russia], I and many other young men were called up into the reserves. My then employers did not pay my wages for the days I spent on reserve duty. Can they really call that a fair legal code?”
The authorities point out that a trilateral Commission of Social Partnership now meets once every three months, as a forum for negotiations between unions, officials and employers.
But the commission lacks any enforcement powers, and the unions say it has not solved any of the problems they have taken to it.
Experts say the labour market will have to be reformed if Georgia is to sign a free trade deal with the EU.
David Narmania, an expert with the Economic Issues Research Centre in Tbilisi, pointed out that Georgia is a signatory to the European Social Charter, which obliges it to protect workers’ rights.
Mikheil Machavariani, also a deputy speaker of parliament, said lawmakers were always open to suggestions about improving legislation.
“Opinions differ on labour legislation - there are the ultra-leftist views of the trade unions, and there are rightist, liberal ones,” he said. “We’ve tried to meld them into a code that protects both employers and employees.”
Tina Zhvania works for the Business Times Georgia magazine.
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