For the second year in a row, Kazakhstan has come under heavy criticism from an influential UN body over the treatment of workers in the Central Asian country.

KarazhanbasMunai oil workers on strike outside company offices in Aktau, Kazakhstan in October 2011.

© 2011 Robin Forestier-Walker

At a meeting this week in Geneva, Kazakhstan drew fire from the International Labour Organization (ILO) for falling short of international standards for freedom of association, failing to amend its restrictive labor union law, and breaking UN reporting procedures.

The ILO’s Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) – which represents governments, trade unions and employers - expressed “serious concern” about Kazakhstan’s lack of progress on bringing national labor legislation into compliance with a key convention it ratified in 2000.

The CAS tackles serious labour and social abuses. Kazakhstan, which is bidding for a seat on the UN Security Council, was one of only 24 countries considered by the committee this year. It said key parts of Kazakhstan’s 2014 trade union law violated ILO Convention 87 on freedom of association, one of the ILO’s most important conventions.  Kazakhstan’s 2014 trade union law makes it mandatory, for example, for sector-based or territorial unions to affiliate to a national union, a violation of basic worker rights to join organizations of their own choosing. CAS also said Kazakhstan should amend its constitution to allow judges, firefighters, and prison staff to join unions.

CAS said Kazakhstan should “ensure the full autonomy and independence of the free and independent employers’ organizations” after the International Organisation of Employers, an employers’ body, expressed concern about government interference in the National Chamber of Entrepreneurs.

Kazakhstan had been reprimanded in CAS in 2015 over the trade union law. On that occasion Kazakhstan did not even attend the CAS hearing – a decision criticised by the committee as highly disrespectful of the ILO. Representatives from Kazakhstan attended this year, but were criticised for failing to report properly to the committee.

At a June 4 hearing a representative of the ILO’s workers’ groups criticised Kazakhstan for its “sustained failure to meet its obligations.” Trade unionists from the US and Russia expressed serious concern about violations of worker rights in Kazakhstan. Birzhan Nurymbetov, Kazakhstan’s vice minister for health and social development, said they would consider the criticism voiced during the hearing, but did not acknowledge the trade union law fell short of Convention 87, and did not commit to amending legislation. Astana’s support came from the Federation of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, the largest national union, and from government representatives from Turkmenistan, Belarus, Russia, Uzbekistan, and China.

It's important that Kazakhstan is engaging with the ILO’s key monitoring body, but now it's time for the government to initiate meaningful reforms.