Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kazak Labour Bill Sidelines Independent Unions
Murat Mashkenov, head of the independent Kazakstan Labour Confederation. (Photo: Ludmila Ekzarkhova)
Larisa Kharkova leads the Kazakstan Confederation of Free Trade Unions. (Photo: Ludmila Ekzarkhova)
Labour activists in Kazakstan say a new trade union bill will marginalise independent unions and boost the power of a central federation with pro-government loyalties. The changes risk making industrial unrest more rather than less likely, they warn.
The proposals, which include mandatory registration and a minimum threshold for trade union membership, were drafted by Kazakstan’s labour ministry and have been circulated to other ministries for their approval. The government is planning to submit the bill to parliament later this year.
Activists say that even the larger independent unions are struggling to navigate the registration process, while smaller ones could find it impossible to win recognition they need to deal directly with employers and the state authorities.
Murat Mashkenov, the head of the independent Kazakstan Labour Confederation, which mainly represents transport, service-sector and aviation unions, told IWPR that the authorities wanted to channel all labour activity through the Federation of Trade Unions. Both the large independent unions and small unaffiliated groups would be unable to function effectively unless they joined the Federation, he said.
According to Mashkenov, the ministry’s message is clear – join the Federation of Trade Unions if you want to be guaranteed a voice in negotiations with the government.
“But there are people who do not trust the Federation,” he added, describing the organisation, which has over two million members, as a direct successor to the pro-government trade union body of the Soviet era.
Mashkenov was the only independent on the working group on the bill and will play a similar role in a tripartite commission to discuss its content. The commission will be drawn from ministry officials, trade unions and employers’ associations.
Larisa Kharkova, who leads the Kazakstan Confederation of Free Trade Unions, points out that the former governor of Karaganda region, Abilgazy Kusainov, was appointed head of the Federation in January, in what she sees as a clear indication of its loyalties.
“They are pro-government and opportunist,” she said. “They would agree to anything.”
In a statement, the labour ministry said Kusainov’s appointment was in line with the Federation’s rules. The deputy chair of the Federation, Gulnara Jumageldieva, denied accusations that it supported the government.
“We are not influenced by the authorities and we do not defend their interests,” she said, asserting that while the Federation does cooperate with the government, it is independent in its decision-making.
According to the bill, new trade union bodies will need to register with the authorities, and existing organisations will have to re-register. Failure to do so will prevent them from being recognised as a legal entity and from functioning properly.
“You won’t be able to set up a bank account. No one will deal with you – you won’t exist in the eyes of authorities, and you won’t be able to take part in negotiations,” Mashkenov said.
The current process for registering a trade union is beset by cumbersome bureaucracy.
One large independent trade union, Janartu, failed to win official recognition despite repeated applications for registration. Journalist Ludmila Ekzarkhova also told IWPR that she had been struggling to register an independent trade union of reporters for the past year.
Another obstacle to independent unions is the bill’s insistence that unions can only negotiate on behalf of their members if they have affiliated organisations in more than half of the country’s 14 regions as well as in the capital Astana and financial centre Almaty. That would be difficult for unions in the oil and mining industries, which are concentrated in the west and north-central parts of the country, respectively.
In a written statement to IWPR, the labour ministry denied that smaller trade unions would have to join the Federation in order to be recognised, stating that this was not mandatory. It also said that the bill had a provision for the establishment of local, voluntary unions of workers.
But Mashkenov said that while it might not be compulsory for small unions to join the Federation, in practice they would have little choice as they are unlikely to be able to fulfil the membership requirements needed for them to recognised as negotiating partners in industrial disputes.
Kharkova is concerned about the membership requirements set out in the bill, arguing that the proposed minimum of ten members will discriminate against the employees of small firms, who should have a right to represent themselves.
“Why tie it to a number?” she asked.
Mashkenov says that if the bill goes through, the landscape will be dominated by the monolithic Federation rather than by the kind of independent unions that can help government understand the realities on the ground, without the filtering effect of labour ministry officials or pro-government organisations. This could make it harder to resolve industrial disputes, which are on the rise in Kazakhstan. Mashkenov warned that such disputes could easily get out of hand, leading to stand-offs and even a repeat of the violence in the western oil town of Janaozen in December 2011, when police fired into a crowd protesting over pay and conditions, leaving 16 dead.
One of the reasons why the industrial dispute in Janaozen lasted for so many months, he said, was that the local oil workers’ union was not recognised, and the Federation representatives who did the talking with the oil company and local government were unable to resolve matters.
“Monopolising trade unions is a road to nowhere,” he added.
Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor; Almaz Kumenov is IWPR Kazakstan editor in Almaty.
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