Turkmen Look Forward to Better Labour Laws

Changes about to go before parliament should provide job security for many who have gone for years with no permanent contract.

Turkmen Look Forward to Better Labour Laws

Changes about to go before parliament should provide job security for many who have gone for years with no permanent contract.

People in Turkmenistan are eagerly awaiting changes to the law limiting the widespread practice of hiring employees on short-term contracts that leave them vulnerable to summary dismissal.

A source in the Turkmen parliament has confirmed that a revised version of the labour code is ready for approval.

He explained that the amendments will limit the use of short-term contracts in the public sector to certain categories of civil servant, while all others have to be offered permanent posts.

“The new labour code will protect the interests of employees,” said a human rights activist who wished to remain anonymous. “We are looking forward to it.”

The new legislation should put an end to the widespread practice in both the public and private sectors of keeping the number of full-time staff to a minimum. Employers have had a lot of incentives for doing so – short-term contracts work out cheaper, and temporary staff are more compliant out of fear of not having their contracts renewed.

It has been common practice to force staff member originally employed on permanent basis to switch to short-term contracts. In addition, unscrupulous employers have been known to throw a staff member out and then offer the position to someone willing to pay bribe to get the job.

It is unclear whether private-sector firms like construction businesses, which are by nature seasonal, will be required to offer continuing contracts. But private employers do have one major advantage over the state in that they pay more, which may offset their workers’ concerns about job security.

Other new provisions in the labour law include longer annual leave for some employers, and the facility to transfer benefit payments to a wider circle of relative if a family’s provider dies.

The existing labour law, which dates from 1993, provides for permanent and short-term posts. The former includes benefits such as three months’ redundancy pay and a two-month notice period.

Short-term contracts are supposed to apply to temporary posts lasting a maximum of three years, but in practice they have been used for continuing positions, by renewing them periodically. Since the 1993 law did not set any minimum period, many employers have offered contracts lasting between one and six months, with one year a rarity.

A lawyer working with a local non-government group said there were no clear guidelines governing temporary contracts and many employers interpreted them at their own discretion. He said his organisation received many requests for help, but was unable to do much because of the ambiguity of the current law.

“Lawyers from our organisation are unable to protect people from arbitrary rules made up by managers, and this is a situation which has existed since 1993,” he said.

According to a commentator based in northern Turkmenistan, the legislation has allowed managers to exploit their staff ruthlessly, for example making them work ten or 12 hours without a break, work over the weekend and holidays for no extra pay, and sending them off to pick cotton for a couple of months in the year during harvest season.

Any complaints are dealt with by terminating the employee’s contract.

“The current contactual system has become a legalised form of summary rule by management,” said a gas industry official.

An analyst based in the capital Ashgabat summed up the situation as “true slavery and dependence on one’s employer”.

The lack of job security is demoralising for professionals and manual workers alike.

“The current conditions leave us all without any rights,” said a doctor in Ashgabat. “The imperfect nature of the contractual system means it’s easy to sack people for the smallest of misdemeanours.”

A welfare ministry employee added, “The anxiety created by constant uncertainty has made for a demoralising atmosphere in companies and organisations. How can you work under circumstances where you’re constantly on your guard, where you can lose your job just for a minor reprimand?”

A street cleaner said she was always in fear of losing her job as she had been on one- or two-month contracts for the last several years.

“It’s a headache every time – are they going to extend my contract or not? I can hardly hold back from speaking out about this iniquity,” she said.

An employee at Turkmenistan’s state broadcasting company said she and her colleagues – some of whom used to be permanent – get their contracts renewed every three months.

She believes managers play the system to vacate posts and then demand bribes from applicants.

“Management benefits from pushing people out of their jobs in this way,” she said. “If you want to become a video engineer, for example, you pay a bribe of 750 dollars.”

In other cases, the temporary nature of employment allows people to be dismissed if they are deemed to be not entirely loyal to the regime. In one case, the editor of a state newspaper reportedly terminated several of his staff’s contracts because the security service had identified them as politically “unreliable”.

Since coming to power two years ago, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov has instituted a number of social-sector reforms, of which this is the latest. Judging from the responses of people interviewed for this report, the move – if it is formally approved – will be a popular one.

(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concerns for their security.)
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