Kazakhstan Oil Worker Strike Enters Third Week
A protest by oil sector workers in the western Kazakhstan city of Aktau has entered its third week as authorities appear unwilling to reconsider a decision to withdraw the registration of an independent trade union.
This dispute flared when the Specialized Inter-District Economic Court of South Kazakhstan Region ruled on January 4 to shutter the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK in its Russian initials) over technicalities to do with its registration. The following day, laborers with the Atyrau-based Oil Construction Company, or OCC, filed an official motion to initiate a hunger strike.
In an echo of the industrial dispute that culminated in bloodshed in the oil town of Zhanaozen in 2011, national media have almost entirely ignored the standoff. But for tireless reporting from correspondents at RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, possibly nothing would be known at all about what is taking place. With the number of workers taking part in protest actions growing — to around 400 people, according to Radio Azattyq — officials may possibly begin to take more notice.
Moscow-based website ferghana.ru cited a workers representative at OCC, Nurbek Kushakbayev, as saying that operations had not been halted by the industrial dispute.
“Work continues, we have not stopped work. The workers are working, but they have simply stopped eating. There are threats from the authorities, they keep on saying this is illegal. But there is nothing illegal about this. To eat or not to eat is for every individual to decide,” Kushakbayev told ferghana.ru.
OCC, a daughter company of national energy concern KazMunaiGaz, employs around 1,880 people and is responsible for the construction and installation of support infrastructure for the oil industry, such as roads, power transmissions lines and oil derricks. It bills itself as one of the largest construction operations in the oil-rich Mangystau region, of which Aktau is the capital.
The union closure protesters argue that since their hunger strike is taking place on OCC’s premises and not in a public space, they do not need to apply for formal permission from the government and they say that the authorities cannot impose any penalties. Court No. 2 in Aktau has decided otherwise and declared the actions of hunger strikers illegal and called on them to leave OCC premises without delay. The legal appeal to declare the protest illegal was filed by management at OCC.
Radio Azattyq reported on January 20 that the OCC strikers have said they will defy that court ruling and continue their protests. Workers from another Aktau-based company, Emir Oil, have reportedly said they will join the protest in solidarity.
Most of the protesting oil workers claim to be rank-and-file members of the ruling Nur Otan party and have said they are unhappy with the lack of support they are receiving from their party.
“Everybody here, all of the workers, pay membership dues to Nur Otan. Why do they pay them if the party does not protect the protect the people and does not sympathize with them? Why do they not come to find out what is going on?” one oil worker, Imangali Moldagaliyev, said to Radio Azattyq.
The deputy head of the Mangystau regional division of Nur Otan, Khalila Nurgaliyeva, has waved away those complaints and said that she requires an official written request for the party to get involved.
“They are not listening to us. They have made no petitions to us. If they write us a note, we will come,” Nurgaliyeva said, while also noting that the protest was illegal.
Further afield, in Astana, members of parliament appeared surprised to hear about the unfolding protest.
“Since this is a collective, every collective of workers has the right to create its own labor union and register. If a dialogue is created, people listen to one another, to demands, to questions, to the solutions to these problems … then there is nothing complicated about and I think it will all be resolved,” Zhambyl Akhmetbekov, a member of the lower house of parliament, told Azattyq.
This confrontation has been looming for months, if not years. The government agreed in February to register the KNPRK, which is affiliated with the Paris-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). That concession was undone when the Justice Ministry late last year launched a legal appeal to have the registration revoked. The ITUC on January expressed dismay at that decision and what it said were the additional acts of pressure exercised against KNPRK president Larisa Kharkova.
“We call upon the Kazakhstan government to cease the actions against [KNPRK] and fulfil its obligations to respect ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association which, under the country’s Constitution, has prevalence over national legislation,” ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow said in a statement.
Advocates for KNPRK argue that existing and officially recognized unions fail miserably to defend the rights of workers, as a Human Rights Watch report published in November documented in detail.
The study, titled “We Are Not The Enemy: Violations of Workers’ Rights in Kazakhstan,” argued that the government was flouting the rights of its workers to organize in trade unions and assert their labor rights. It documented “harassment, surveillance, and, in some cases, spurious legal prosecution or dismissals in apparent retaliation for labor activism.”
Kharkova told HRW she has faced a systematic campaign of intimidation at the hands of security service agents when she has traveled to meet with workers in western Kazakhstan.
In its report, HRW raised concerns over a 2014 trade union law that workers’ advocates say has severely hindered their work. HRW also registered concern over a new labor code passed in 2015 in the teeth of opposition from independent trade unions and the objections of the International Labor Organization.
The government had portrayed both pieces of legislation as designed to shore up workers’ rights.