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Workers’ strikes have become ever more frequent in Kazakh enterprises

Poor working conditions, low salaries, a lack of protection by the law – these and other reasons have prompted industrial workers in Kazakhstan to hold protest rallies in order to defend their rights. Despite the bitter experience of the Zhanaozen tragedy, the management of the companies are not always prepared to hold a dialogue with the workers. 

Labour conflict in the “Velikaya Stena” drilling company

On 7 May, 2013, the fact of the escalation of the labour dispute in the Kazakh-Chinese drilling company “Velikaya Stena” was made public.  On that day, a press conference was organised; it was attended by a driller, Marat Karamanov, an engineer-technologist, Maksut Mukhametzhanov and a civil activist Alpamys Bekturganov. They stated that there have been instances of discrimination of Kazakh workers in the company. In particular, the driller Marat Karamanov noted the following: “Prior to the year 2008, we managed to find a common language with all the managers, but upon the taking of the office by the General Director, Hu Er Tai, the working relationships with subordinates has changed. Now our performance can be criticised unjustly and we may be subsequently dismissed from work; job cuts have become commonplace. At first we thought that maybe the management is striving to save money so that they could raise our salaries. But it wasn’t the case. The time for assembly, drilling, disassembly is being curtailed more and more; all this leads to gross breaches of safety regulations. My salary was 150,000 -160,000 tenge (approx. 770 euros – editorial note), and I am a master, the head of the drilling crew! Also, it’s been a long time since we last received any bonuses”.

The active stage of the labour conflict in the company began back in April 2013. At that time, workers wrote a collective appeal to the General Director Hu Er Tai with the following demands:

• to conduct indexation of wages, taking into consideration the inflation (currently the average salary among workers is 118,000 tenge, which is approximately 600 euros);

• to introduce in the collective agreement, a clause on a quarterly indexation of salaries;

• to stop the arrogant attitude of foreign experts to local staff.

The company’s management has not responded to the appeal. Moreover, the leader of the labour movement, a driller with thirty years’ experience, Marat Karamanov, was dismissed from work.

The formal reason for his dismissal was that he allegedly “failed to ensure the safety of the entrusted property”. As it transpired, in November 2012, an expensive drillbit disappeared from the warehouse of the company. Marat Karamanov wrote a statement to the police about the disappearance; he also addressed all metal collection points in Aktobe with the request that they return the stolen item, should they find it. Soon after that, the stolen drillbit was returned; two unknown men brought it to Marat Karamanov’s house. After that, the bit was returned to the warehouse with confirmation of receipt provided by the head of the company’s warehouse. The return of the lost item was also reported to the police, and subsequently, the case was closed. However, sometime later, this incident served as a pretext for the dismissal of Marat Karamanov. This has further aggravated the conflict between the management of the company and workers. 

On 6 May, 2013, representatives of the personnel of the company held a meeting, during which they raised the question of establishing an independent labour union and the initiation of a labour dispute. At the initiative of the workers, a civil activist, Alpamys Bekturganov was appointed as a mediator between the workers and the management of the company. On the same day, he met with the General Director of the “Velikaya Stena” company’, Er Tai Hu, and cited numerous examples of violations of the rights of Kazakh workers. According to Alpamys Bekturganov, he was not satisfied with the result of the meeting.

Over time, oppression of the company’s workers has become more severe. As was reported to the Open Dialog Foundation by Alpamys Bekturganov, now workers are being forced to sign some documents on pain of dismissal. What concerns Marat Karamanov, a criminal case was instituted against him on charges of the theft of a drillbit; initially, he was connected to the case as a witness, but now he is accused of being complicit to the crime. Currently, Karamanov is under house arrest and is awaiting trial. Alpamys Bekturganov made attempts to become familiarised with Marat Karamanov’s case file, but the investigators failed to provide him with such an opportunity, citing the secrecy of the investigation. According to Alpamys Bekturganov, Marat Karamanov is being prosecuted for his civil activities, and not for the alleged theft of a drillbit. Local authorities do not provide any assistance: “The officials asked me: “Why are you interfering? Do you intend to stir up social discord?”, – complains Alpamys Bekturganov.

Currently, the labour dispute in the drilling company “Velikaya Stena” remains unresolved.

Workers’ unrest in connection to the standstill of the Zhezkazgan copper-smelting plant

On 20 June, 2013, the intention of the management of the mining company “Kazakhmys” to suspend the Zhezkazgan copper-smelting plant (ZMZ) for reconstruction was announced to the public. According to the plan, the operation of the ZMZ will be halted from 1 September, 2013. Despite the company’s statement that job cuts due to the renovation are not being planned, workers of the ZMZ began to fear possible layoffs or salary cuts.

On 24 June, 2012, more than a hundred people laid down their tools and held a rally in front of the copper-smelting plant, demanding cancellation of the decision to suspend operation of the plant. The workers also put forward a demand that they are to be given an opportunity to hold a meeting with the owner of “Kazakhmys”, Vladimir Kim, in order to discuss the ongoing problems in the enterprise.

On 4 July, 2013, the limited liability partnership “Kazakhmys Smelting” and the civil organisation “Branch Professional Group of workers of “Kazakhmys” composed a memorandum on issues related to the renovation of ZMZ. The main points of the memorandum included assurances given by the “Kazakhmys” company that the renovation will not entail staff reductions, and during that period, workers will receive 100% of the average salary for the positions they hold. The memorandum also stipulated the intended period of renovation: 2 years and 3 months, commencing on 1 September, 2013.

It is worth noting that labour conflicts in the Zhezkazgan enterprises, which are a part of the “Kazakhmys” structure, occur quite frequently. In May 2012, the Open Dialog Foundation reported a labour dispute at the Zhezkazgan central heating and power plant. On 9 February, 2013, a rally in protest against the situation at the “Kazhamys” company was held in Zhezkazgan. Approximately 70 protesters demanded that the production of non-ferrous metals not be curtailed, and that exertion of pressure on unions be stopped. Due to the fact that the rally was not sanctioned by the city authorities, one of the organisers, Berik Zhagiparov, a journalist, was sentenced to seven days’ incarceration. In addition, on 26 March, 2013, the website of the local “Molodhyoznaya Gazeta” (“Youth Daily”) was suspended for calling on workers to participate in the unsanctioned rally; it should be noted that Berik Zhagiparov was the editor-in-chief of the aforementioned newspaper.    

According to the head of the civil association “Elim-ai” Saule Seydakhmetova, in Zhezkazgan there is ongoing persecution of the critics of the leadership of “Kazakhmys”: Independent newspapers are oppressed, workers, engaged in the civil activity, are harassed. Apart from being dismissed from enterprises, those “inconvenient” are also subjected to all sorts of other unpleasant consequences”.  Journalist Berik Zhagiparov quoted to the Open Dialog Foundation some examples of the interference in news coverage by local authorities. After writing an article about the developments in ZMZ, Berik Zhagiparov was ordered to report to the Prosecutor’s Office in Zhezkazgan. The First Deputy Prosecutor of the city, Zhanbolat Mukyshev, verbally accused the journalist of provoking conflicts between the management and workers with his articles. Zhanbolat Mukyshev threatened Berik Zhagiparov that his actions may be perceived as deeds punishable under Article 164 of the CriminalCode (“inciting social discord”).

Since the beginning of 2013, several strikes of workers have been held in Kazakhstan, which may indicate that the social situation in the industrial regions of Kazakhstan is currently tense.

On 19 February, 2013, in the town of Aktau, Mangistau Province, more than 150 workers of the shipbuilding company “Keppel Kazakhstan” laid down their tools, demanding higher salaries, elimination of disparities between the salaries of Kazakh and foreign workers, as well as permission to have compensatory time off, stipulated in the law, and cessation of illegal dismissals. Following a promise made by the company to raise salaries by 30% starting from 1 March, 2013, the strike was called off.

On 11 March, 2013, 101 oil workers of the largest contractors “Oil Service Company” (OSC) in the Kalamkas field in Mangistau Province called a strike. Oil workers demanded an increase in salaries and the withdrawal of security service from the fields. The company’s management promised to raise salaries. Afterwards, oil workers resumed their work.

On 7 July, 2013,  approximately 200 Kazakh workers of AdzhipKKO’s subcontracted company – “Cape Industrial Services” went on strike on artificial island “D” of the North Caspian Project (Kashagan field). The workers commenced a sit-down strike – dressed in overalls, they came to their stations, but did nothing. The following day, on 8 July, 2013, the situation reoccurred. The reason for the strike was that the company has been downsizing its working force. Moreover, workers are forced to quit their jobs at their own request. With this type of dismissal, they don’t qualify for severance pay, which is granted under law to dismissed persons if the layoff takes place at the initiative of the employer. On 9 July, 2013, a representative of the Prosecutor’s Office of Atyrau Province, Aslan Nurgaliyev, enunciated at a briefing that the conflict has been resolved and the workers who had been on strike, resumed their work. “Violations of labour rights, which had been the subject of workers’ complaints, have been eliminated. Those who were laid off will receive adequate compensation. The process of downsizing of working force will be monitored by the state,” – said Aslan Nurgaliyev. On 14 July, 2013, the press reported that the conflict remains unresolved. Workers complain that the notice of dismissal (it is solely on the basis of this document that they can claim compensation for dismissal) indicates that they had been warned about the dismissal a year ago. Still, according to the law, the notice must be served one month prior to dismissal. Accordingly, the notices handed down to workers may be declared invalid and thus, they will not be able to receive compensation.

The Open Dialog Foundation hereby expresses its concern over the ever more frequent reports of strikes at Kazakh enterprises and increase in social tensions in the country. The imperfection of the labour legislation and the lack of an adequate control over labour relations by local authorities cause Kazakh workers to be unprotected from the tyranny of employers.

In the case of the occurrence of labour disputes, local authorities often take the side of big business. Independent journalists and labour union activists who publicly defend the labour rights and civil rights of the population, face the risk of criminal prosecution. Government intervention in the resolution of labour disputes is largely situational.

The Open Dialog Foundation hereby urges the authorities of Kazakhstan to reform the system of labour relations in the industrial sector of economy, so as to minimise the risk of labour disputes in the future. In particular, we call on them to: 

  • revise the conditions of labour in the enterprises in accordance with international labour standards;
  • allow the legitimate activities of independent labour unions, to maximally simplify the procedure for establishment of independent labour unions;
  • increase workers’ salaries to a level which ensures the coverage of real minimum of subsistence;