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Kazakhstan must respect democracy and fundamental rights

Kazakhstan is known for a systematic violation of core human and workers’ rights, as well as general lack of democracy in the country. Social dialogue is virtually non-existent, and the authorities adopted a regressive law on trade unions in 2014, which effectively eliminates free and independent unions. Nearly 8,000 people have been detained and more than 160 people have been killed following the recent mass protests triggered by a doubling of gas prices. The violent response yet again stresses the need for democracy and recognition and respect for fundamental human and workers’ rights in the country.

A new trade union law in 2014 - trade unions liquidated

After widespread strikes in 2011 and 2012, Kazakhstan adopted a new Trade Union Law in 2014 that virtually eliminated the possibility of independent union organizing. The law created a burdensome registration requirement that resulted in unions being denied registration. Several trade union activists have been imprisoned and upon release, banned from union activities. The authorities proceeded to liquidate independent workers' organizationss.

Since the regressive law on trade unions was adopted, the registration procedures have been used to prevent the creation of at least 600 free and independent unions at various levels. The Confederation of independent trade unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK) was liquidated in March 2017 and has since then made three unsuccessful attempts to re-register.

In February 2021, the last remaining and functioning union affiliated to KNPRK, the Trade union of fuel and energy industry workers, was suspended for six months. Union leaders Erlan Baltabay and Larisa Kharkova, who were found guilty of bogus charges, have been imprisoned and placed in house arrest. Baltabay was later freed thanks to a massive international solidarity campaign. However, both are still considered criminals and banned from any public activity, including union activities, for a few years.

The independent unions were awarded the Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights in 2018

The Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights 2018 was awarded to the Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, represented by Larisa Kharkova, Nurbek Kushakbaev and Amin Eleusinov. In the justification the prize committee wrote: "Trade Union leaders and activists of Kazakhstan face severe repression in due to their involvement with trade unions rights, and the rights of the working people in their country. Kushakbaev and Eleusinov have been imprisoned, but were released just before the award ceremony. Now they share fate with Kharkova who is living with great restrictions of civil liberties. A national court ruling has banned the confederation of independent trade unions (KNPRK), and unfair fines are a heavy burden for the three union activists.

Union rights has been under immense pressure for years, and the authorities show little respect for the right to organize. "

Harsh criticism from ILO

In June 2021, for the fifth time, union rights violations in Kazakhstan were in focus at the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards during the International Labour Conference. The Committee demands that Kazakhstan revises the union registration procedure to make it a formality, ensures the registration of the KNPRK or its successor, lifts the restrictions on the Trade union of fuel and energy industry workers, stops prosecuting unionists, and drops all charges against union leaders.

ITUC condemns the latest attacks

The ITUC deplores the killing of more than 160 people in the recent violence in Kazakhstan and calls for a full, open and public inquiry into the circumstances of all the deaths, as well as the damage to public and private property.

The ITUC also denounces the temporary detention on 6 January of several trade union leaders who were released following immediate intervention by the ITUC and calls for all innocent detainees to be released. Some 8,000 people remain in detention.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said: ”Kazakhstan is yet another example of a government enabling the extraction of vast national wealth by a few oligarchs at the expense of the people, and this inevitably causes not only poverty and precarity, but massive discontent. Fundamental change is needed to put the economy at the service of the people, with decent jobs, pensions, public services and universal social protection overall. Any government that sees its role as simply supporting the free market and protecting the wealthy can be neither excused nor sustained. Central to Kazakhstan’s future must be full respect for ILO standards, in particular on freedom of association and collective bargaining, and genuine social dialogue.”

Kazakhstan must respect fundamental human and workers’ rights

To achieve respect for human and workers’ rights, social dialogue and democracy, Kazakhstan must:

  • Bring national legislation in line with ILO Conventions 87 and 98, ratified by Kazakhstan, and to ensure full compliance in respect of fundamental human and workers’ rights

  • Restore the registration of the dissolved Confederation of independent trade unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK) and its suspended affiliate, and simplify the process for trade union registration

  • Enable independent trade unions to operate and ensure genuine social dialogue at all levels

There is a lesson to be learned from the mass protests. It is policies, and not external forces, that have provoked the social and labour conflicts, strongly suppressed by the police and the security forces. The main lesson is that dialogue with relevant parties, a commitment to openness and democratic values, social dialogue with workers represented by trade unions, are needed to build a sustainable society in Kazakhstan.

Photo: AFP

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