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A new generation of union leaders could transform Armenia’s labour relations

The legacy of Soviet labour relations and legal obstructions to striking have left Armenian trade unions with a poor reputation and little history of effecting change. But with fresh leadership in Armenia’s Confederation of Trade Unions, change seems newly possible.

New leadership wants changes

Tiruhi Nazaretyan was elected deputy head of the Confederation of Trade Unions of Armenia in October 2022 as one of a new generation of union bosses seeking to reform the country’s trade unions from top-to-bottom, putting labour rights on the agenda while cleaning up their tarnished image.

Trade unions struggling to find their place

Despite the Soviet Union collapsing 30 years ago, labour unions in Armenia are still struggling to find their place in society. Until now people in Armenia has seen unions as something that would organise vacations and gather money for birthday. All unions in Armenia are part of the Confederation of Trade Unions, which operates in a pyramid structure — unions of individual enterprises fall under their local sectoral unions, which come under the umbrella of the national sectoral unions, or branch unions. There are 18 such branch unions of different sectors that form the Confederation of the Trade Unions of Armenia.

The confederation cites Armenia’s mining sector, a crucial sector of the Armenian economy, as a successful example of unionisation. It is also a field rife with occupational hazards including cave-ins, explosions, extreme temperatures, and dust that can trigger respiratory diseases. As a result, mining unions are some of the most influential in the country as they are both well-connected and spread out. Unions have, for example, successfully managed to secure an agreement with the Zangezur Copper Combine — one of the largest companies in Armenia — to guarantee a healthcare budget dedicated to addressing the health needs of miners.

Stalled reforms

Throughout its independence, Armenia has struggled to address the demands of unions and workers. It was not until 2018 that Armenia’s post-revolutionary authorities promised to address issues such as minimum wage and working conditions. The promise of such reforms, however, has come to a standstill since the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. But the new leadership of the Confederation of Trade Unions intends to continue to push for such reforms.

Elen Manaseryan, the new head of the confederation, has used her role as head of the confederation to campaign for an increase in Armenia’s minimum wage, currently just $190 per month, and for the legalisation of strikes, but has so far been unable to find the political support needed to commit these changes.

Most forms of strikes are not legal

The issues preventing workers from challenging their employers are both individual and systemic. While many workers choose not to speak up about violations in their workplace for fear of losing their jobs, even if they do want to protest workplace issues, striking is not legal in Armenia.

Armenian legislation prevents workers from resorting to most forms of labour strikes — a standard tool of escalation in other countries, critical to protecting workers’ rights. This usually leaves Armenian unions with negotiations as the only legal avenue to pursue meaningful changes in working conditions.

However, Armenian law does prescribe certain criteria to allow workers to strike: unions are allowed to organise strikes if a company was in breach of an agreement signed between the union and the employer.

Unions do not encourage strikes at an organisational level today, but if a union-employer agreement is breached, branch unions and the confederation are ready to offer their support to striking workers. Unfortunately, most small unions spread around the country do not have collective agreements with their employers, and the bureaucracy required to organise a strike is heavy.

The confederation has pushed for amendments to labour laws to allow for more spontaneous striking, but it is a question if workers would strike even if they were given the legal mechanisms to do so effectively. The culture of getting jobs through nepotism is still prevalent in Armenia. This reduces the chances of strikes and, in general, prevents workers from speaking up about their rights. Convincing workers that trade unions are on their side, now remains one of the biggest challenges facing the unions.

The logo of The Confederation of Trade Unions of Armenia (CTUA)

Source: OC Media


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