Employees of an oil services company in western Kazakhstan are pushing ahead with industrial action in their demand for improved working conditions despite waves of firings.
Around 500 workers at West Oil Software, a company based in the Mangystau region, reportedly downed their tools and began holding rallies early last week. A core demand is for employees to hired by subsidiaries of state-owned oil and gas company KazMunaiGas, or KMG, which they say would ensure higher salaries.
Striking workers say that the decision, adopted in 2018, to cut loose KMG subsidiaries where they worked previously and for employees to be transferred to other private companies was a cost-cutting measure that led to a stagnation in salary growth.
West Oil Software has shown no intention to de-escalate. Seven employees were fired on December 13 over what the company has described as an illegal industrial action. Another 19 workers were laid off later in the week. The firings were sanctioned by the Karakiyansk district court on December 11.
West Oil Software put out a statement on December 18 to say that it is fully complying with the requirements of an earlier collective bargaining agreement and that striking workers are being dishonest in their demands.
“The company provides workers with wages that exceed the wages of other oil service companies,” the company was cited as saying by Aktau-based outlet Lada.kz.
West Oil Software workers, meanwhile, argue that the company is being disingenuous in claiming that it pays salaries averaging around 735,000 tenge ($1,600).
“Why don’t they talk about the 320-350,000 tenge salaries instead of showing the higher ones?” Alibek Koshchanov, a leading striker, told Radio Azattyk, RFE/RL’s Kazakh service. “I am not saying that there are not 735,000 tenge salaries, but they are only being earned by people operating above the norm, working day and night without rest.”
Another complaint is that laborers are having to make do with superannuated machinery. Following an earlier strike in 2021, the company pledged that this shortcoming would be addressed, but nothing was done in the end, workers say.
Koshchanov said that only 28 of the 98 vehicles used by the company have been found to be fit for purpose.
“The guys are risking their lives every time they come to work. The equipment is so worn out that you can see the road through the bottom,” a driver at West Oil Software, Sandibek Kosanov, told Azattyk.
KMG has rejected petitions for it to absorb West Oil Software’s workforce. KMG says that when it spun off its subsidiaries, the shakeup was effected with the blessing of the employees, who it said received one-off payments of 11 million tenge as part of the restructuring deal. It has, however, acknowledged that equipment needs to be refurbished and that hundreds of items of machinery will be replaced over the coming three years.
The oil-rich Mangystau region has long been a hotbed of industrial action to which the government and employers have responded through a blend of heavy-handed clampdowns and piecemeal attempts to mollify militant elements.
West Oil Software mounted pickets in the summer 2021 in a demand for higher wages. Those strikes culminated in the company offering a one-third hike in pay.
Workers seeking improved conditions may have been further emboldened by remarks made by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in September that same year.
Speaking at an event on economic development in Mangystau, Tokayev noted that 80 percent of labor disputes in the country occur in that region. He pinned the blame for that on companies.
“Some managers of private companies are pushing workers to go on strike,” Tokayev said. “They don’t give the allocated money to the workers, but instead put it in their own pockets.”
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.