Trade unions that represent their members properly in Kazakstan cannot avoid entering into confrontation with the government, as labour rights essentially count as a political issue, a leading union leader forced into exile says.
Esenbek Ukteshbaev, leader of the independent Janartu (Revival) trade union, gave an interview to IWPR on a recent visit to London to raise awareness about workers’ rights in Kazakstan.
Ukteshbaev has been living in Moscow since October 2011, when he and Janartu deputy chairman Ainur Kurmanov left Kazakstan after they were threatened with arrest. In September, they were charged with “taking the law into their own hands” by obstructing the eviction of a family. One of the groups associated with Janartu represents people struggling to keep up with mortgage payments. Both men deny committing a criminal offense.
Janartu operates as a trade union federation that includes manufacturing, public sector, mine and service industry workers. It has failed to win official recognition despite repeated applications for registration. This lack of recognition complicates attempts to hold public gatherings, which require prior approval from local government in Kazakstan.
In February, Ukteshbaev and Kurmanov issued a statement saying they were at risk of abduction by the Kazak security service, or extradition by the Russian authorities. They said the authorities in Kazakstan were trying to build a case to prove they were behind the unrest in the western town of Janaozen in December that followed months of protests by sacked oil workers. Fourteen people died when police opened fire on protesters in the town.
Ukteshbaev began by describing how industrial relations were a highly politicised matter in the context of Kazakstan.
Esenbek Ukteshbaev: In Kazakstan, some politicians accuse us of confusing trade union activity with politics. But we believe that it’s impossible to be involved in the trade union movement and avoid politics…. Even demanding a pay increase or improved working conditions touches on politics.
Social protest groups have turned to us. One of the movements that has sprung up since 2007, when the financial crisis hit Kazakstan, is a group representing the interests of small-scale investors who put money into construction firms but were cheated.
The authorities must take the blame, as they issued licences to those businesses. We also know that there are people who are in power, government officials, behind companies like this – some are direct owners, while others use front men. That is why we demanded that the government get involved and help resolve the conflict.
IWPR: What was the outcome of that campaign?
Ukteshbaev: It took more than one year, but after several years of protests, appeals and negotiations, we succeeded in forcing the government to allocate funds… and the problem has been almost solved.
Now the government is proclaimed that it helped them, but we know how it actually happened. We paid a high price – trials, fines and detention when we held protest meetings which the authorities refused to allow.
IWPR: How large is Janartu’s membership?
Ukteshbaev: Our members include local and regional-level trade unions. For example, in eastern Kazakstan we have Labour Protection, a regional union led by Ivan Bulgakov. There’s the 3,000-member independent union of medical professionals in Saryagash, southern Kazakstan; some of the workers building the highway linking Europe and western China, and the regional trade union in Aktau which is also part of our organisation.… Additionally, there are unions that are currently part of the [official] Federation of Trade Unions but are waiting for Janartu to get registration so that they can join us.
IWPR: Kazakstan has various groups that criticise the authorities over the social, political and economic situation. There are the opposition Alga and OSDP-Azat parties, and also civil society and rights groups that call for democratic rights. You represent the independent trade unions. But there is little close cooperation among these different groups.
Ukteshbaev: We have repeatedly urged all political parties, including OSDP-Azat and Alga, to join forces to tackle social problems. We have often criticised them for showing signs of life only during election periods. We don’t see much desire [to get involved] on their part.
Maybe they don’t want conflict with the authorities. Engagement means you get drawn into conflict with the authorities whether you want to or not. We asked OSDP-Azat to show support for the small investors, but they weren’t enthusiastic.
IWPR: Yet opposition activists did express support for the oil workers. They took part in the campaigns for an independent inquiry into Janaozen, and for fair trials. Alga party leader Vladimir Kozlov is in detention awaiting trial.
Ukteshbaev: As political parties, they just couldn’t stand aside and do nothing. There had been accusations that the opposition didn’t lend its support when those things happening. So then they did help, and the involvement of [OSDP-Azat co-chairman Bulat] Abilov did lift the workers’ spirits.
IWPR: A survey by the Kazakstan Institute for Political Solutions shows that May 2012 saw a record number of localised industrial protests, including the Kazakhmys miners, the ArcelorMittal Temirtau steelworkers, the trans-Kazakstan highway workers, staff at Kazakhaltyn, market traders in Almaty, and employees of a metals plant in Taraz region. Some people might therefore conclude that it’s possible to negotiate without resorting to street protests, aligning oneself with political groups, or mounting campaigns to get one’s voice heard.
Ukteshbaev: In our country, you won’t achieve anything without making a robust protest. The authorities only understand things in the face of pressure; they won’t listen to demands or appeals otherwise
We’ve been through that ourselves. For example, at my workplace [railway carriage repair factory in Almaty] we initially tried to pursue the legal route, writing to the prosecutor’s office whose job it was to deal with wrongdoing. The workers were in a tough position because their wages were being delayed.
No one was interested. But once we went on strike, all the problems were resolved. It was consolidated action that made changes happen and produced a positive outcome for us. Robust protest doesn’t mean taking to the streets and destroying things.
IWPR: Industrial disputes often involve private companies, and government officials say they don’t have powers to intervene. Don’t they have a point?
Ukteshbaev: I’m not saying the authorities are to blame for everything. But these companies are operating in Kazakstan, so the government should get involved because the issues affect its citizens.
It can be done within a legal framework, for example a tripartite commission set up to deal with an industrial dispute. That is in fact what we tried to arrange to reconcile the parties to the dispute in western Kazakstan – representing government, the company and the oil workers. But company officials and the security services undermined the commission’s work. There were attacks on [labour] activists… and attempts to pressure people or buy them off.
IWPR: What form did this pressure take?
Ukteshbaev: Some labour activists were prosecuted for illegally holding trade union meetings, even though no one can bar people from doing so. Recruiting new members was also turned into a breach of the law, although it’s every trade union’s right to do this.
IWPR: Some analysts argue that Kazakstan’s vast size, the disconnect between different parts of the country, and the official clampdown on dissent all make it difficult to build a national mood for protest, and that even the tragic events in Janaozen failed to achieve this. How would you respond to that?
Ukteshbaev: I think Janaozen did make an impact. Since it happened, sizeable parts of the population have changed their view of the government. Their faith in the authorities is dwindling.
IWPR: What about the risk that the Kazak authorities will try to bring you and Kurmanov back to the country? Has that diminished since you issued your statement in February?
Ukteshbaev: Yes, it has, because it led to an outcry. The European Parliament made a statement, as did the British trade unions. Members of the Duma [lower house of Russian parliament] then intervened, and sent a formal request to the Russian prosecutor general and interior ministry on the matter. I believe that stopped them.
Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia Editor in London.
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