(Berlin) – Kazakhstan should immediately end legal moves to liquidate an independent trade union confederation, Human Rights Watch said today. An economic court in Shymkent, in southern Kazakhstan, on December 5, 2016, began reviewing a case brought by the Justice Ministry against the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan. Three other affiliated industrial trade unions face liquidation as well.

“Kazakhstan should be allowing workers to organize freely in compliance with its international obligations, not trying to shut down a major workers’ organization,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Trampling on basic labor rights is both wrong in principle and in the signal it sends to Kazakhstan’s partners.”

Kazakhstan is a regional hub for foreign investment in extractive industries, and has ambitions to be a top-30 economy by 2050. Kazakhstan’s key economic partners, including the European Union, its member states, and the United States, should urge Astana to step back from liquidating an internationally recognized union body and to allow trade unions to operate freely, Human Rights Watch said.

A worker walks past oil tanks in southern Kazakhstan. 

© 2016 Reuters

The move to liquidate the union confederation and affiliates representing medical workers, domestic workers, and mine workers, comes after authorities rejected repeated efforts by the union body to fully register its operations under a restrictive 2014 trade union law. The law imposes burdensome registration requirements on trade unions that are at odds with internationally protected workers’ rights to organize, Human Rights Watch said.

In 2015 and 2016, the International Labour Organization (ILO) at its annual conference strongly criticized Kazakhstan for its restrictions in the 2014 trade union law. In June 2015, the Committee on the Application of Standards, the highest-level decision-making body of the ILO, said that Kazakhstan should “amend the provisions of the Trade Union Law of 2014 consistent with the Convention.” Kazakhstan has not amended the law.

Kazakhstan’s Justice Ministry has accused the confederation, which registered after significant delays in February 2016, of violating the trade union law by failing to confirm its status as a national union within six months.

The law requires each national union to document that it has member organizations in over half the territories of Kazakhstan, in Almaty, the largest city, and in Astana, the capital. In a recently-released report “‘We Are Not the Enemy’: Violations of Workers Rights in Kazakhstan,” Human Rights Watch documented how the confederation and its affiliated industrial and local unions faced registration processing delays at the Justice Ministry or had their applications returned on technical grounds, such as for minor inconsistencies in translation, as they tried to comply with registration requirements.

The confederation and its predecessor bodies have been operating in Kazakhstan since the early 1990s. After the adoption of the 2014 trade union law, the then-named Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Kazakhstan tried several times, starting in May 2015, to re-register in compliance with the new provisions, but was unable to meet the geographical and representational requirements of the law. After further restructuring efforts, the group registered under the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan name in February 2016.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the leading international union body, recently accepted the confederation as a full member. On December 1, the ITUC issued a statement calling on the Kazakhstan government to respect freedom of association and sent a letter to President Nursultan Nazarbaev urging him to “withdraw immediately the pending complaint before the Economic Court and to ensure that workers have the right to establish trade unions without previous authorization.”

“Kazakhstan should recall that trade unions are formed by workers, not the government, and that they exist to protect workers’ rights,” Williamson said. “Authorities in Kazakhstan should see trade unions as playing an essential role in the country’s development, not as a threat that deserves to be liquidated.”