Unprecedented protests by workers at two of Georgia’s largest retailers are calling attention to the poor conditions under which many service-industry employees in the country work, advocates and experts say.
On February 7, employees at one of Georgia’s largest supermarket chains, Fresco, posted a statement on Facebook, describing the “exploitative conditions” under which they work. Two days later, employees at Biblius, Georgia’s largest chain of bookstores, followed suit with a similar video post. Both items went viral and were accompanied by real-life protests in front of shops across Tbilisi.
The protests, and the degree to which they resonated across Georgia, suggest a potentially major shift is underway in a sector that had previously been relatively quiescent, said Lina Gvinianidze, Social Rights Program Director at the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center.
Two years ago, two employees from another supermarket chain, Ioli, protested against their working conditions, “but besides a few protests after their dismissal, nothing changed,” Gvinianidze said. “Now, after two isolated cases spoke out, they were not only shared hundreds of thousands of times online, but people also started sharing their experiences in the service industry, and several protests are taking place.”
Georgia has seen a rise in labor-related protests over the past few years, most notably a strike by coal miners in western Georgia last year. But the service industry, which is not represented by a trade union, is the largest sector in Georgia’s economy, and, as such, plays a large role in society, Gvinianidze said.
Management at the companies dismissed the protests. Fresco’s CEO Vasil Sofromadze said the reports were not made by current Fresco employees and, therefore, were false. Biblius fired back with a long Facebook post arguing that the employees were leaving important facts out, and that the company treats its employees well.
But after the online protests went viral, hundreds of ordinary Georgians, having faced similar conditions in the service industry, are now sharing their experiences with the hashtag #გაბედეშენც (“dare to speak up”).
One Facebook user, for example, wrote that her manager deducted 50 laris (about 19 USD) out of her 350 laries (135 USD) monthly salary after she took a two-minute break after receiving some bad news. “Sitting down, bending down to tie my shoes, speaking with my colleagues, it was all prohibited by the terms of our contract,” the user’s post said.
Observers trace the rise in labor discontent to politics. Under the previous regime, led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, the government eliminated a number of protections for workers, making it easier for companies to fire employees, cutting the social tax paid towards pensions, and abolishing various forms of benefits.
One particularly consequential reform was the dismantling of the Labor Inspection Department, which had been tasked with ensuring employers’ compliance with labor laws. The reforms were implemented in the name of eradicating corruption, streamlining bureaucracy and spurring economic growth. But they ended up leaving workers unprotected.
“There were many corrupt institutions in Georgia, such as the police force, the education system,” Gvinianidze said. “But the difference is that [the Saakashvili government] decided to transform those institutions. The Labor Inspection Department was abolished, and nothing was put in its place.”
“The deregulation on labor rights of the previous government has been devastating for all sectors,” said Gocha Aleksandria, Vice President at the Georgian Trade Union Confederation, Georgia’s largest union. “They killed the labor movement in Georgia.”
The Georgian Dream coalition, which replaced Saakashvili’s United National Movement in 2012, came to power on campaign promises of improving social conditions. In 2013, the government reintroduced several mechanisms for the protection of workers’ rights, including the Labor Inspection Department.
But expectations that things would substantially improve under the new government proved illusory, and by the end of 2013, workers realized that “they could not rely on the government to punish the employers,” Gocha said. Labor protests continued to gain momentum, including multiple miners’ strikes in the past five years.
The retail protests seem to be shifting Georgians’ perceptions of labor rights, Gvinianidze said. “The current service industry protests have clearly shown society, basically educated everyone, that labor rights affect all of us, and not only people working in mines, for example.”
Gocha agreed, saying that social media has played a vital role in exposing the severe conditions the service industry workers face on a daily basis.
The government has thus far abstained from commenting on the new wave of protests. But there are indications that they have raised awareness among Georgians about their working conditions, potentially making the issue a more politically salient one.
“Every month, I work two weeks straight, every day, from 8:30 in the morning until 11:30 at night, and the other two weeks I am free,” said 31-year-old Tamuna, who has worked in a cramped corner shop in central Tbilisi for almost 10 years. “I never thought my rights were being violated, but perhaps I should see if I can, too, improve my situation.”