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Kazakhstan Comes Under Fire for Workers’ Rights Crackdown

Global Unions, Key Governments Call for Release of Detained Workers and Legal Reform

A worker walks past oil tanks in southern Kazakhstan.  © 2016 Reuters

For the third year in a row, Kazakhstan’s woeful record on workers’ rights has come under scrutiny at the International Labour Organization (ILO), the premier international body monitoring labor rights.

Having examined Kazakhstan’s record last week, the ILO today published its draft conclusions calling once again for reform of the country’s labor laws and characterizing the shuttering of the country’s independent union federation as a “grave issue.”

Kazakhstan’s record was debated on June 8, by the ILO’s Committee on Application of Standards (CAS), a tripartite body of governments, trade unions, and employers’ organizations that annually reviews some of the most serious cases of noncompliance with international labor standards.

International unions criticized the flawed provisions of Kazakhstan’s trade union law that obstruct independent trade union organizing. They also denounced the forced closure of the country’s main independent trade union in January and called for an end to persecution of workers’ representatives. But criticism also came from Kazakhstan’s key international economic partners – the European Union, United States, Canada, Switzerland, and Norway – who joined calls for urgent reforms and an end to government actions against labor activists and unions.

This is the second year in a row that Human Rights Watch observed the proceedings and couldn’t help but notice the somber tone of the deliberations. It’s understandable why. Despite an encouraging ILO mission to Kazakhstan in September last year, in the months since, authorities have shut down the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK), harassed its chairwoman Larisa Kharkova with spurious criminal charges, and sent two union leaders to jail on politically motivated charges.

Kazakhstan’s Deputy Labor Minister, Birzhan Nurymbetov, said his government is considering amendments to the Trade Union Law, but even if adopted, they still would not bring the law into compliance with the core ILO convention on free association and organizing in the workplace (Convention No. 87 from 1950). More critically, he failed to respond substantively to concerns about the imprisonment of trade union leaders.

Kazakhstan’s leadership claims to pursue policies of economic and social modernization. Hosting Expo 2017, which opened last weekend, reflects this ambition. But such aspirations are at odds with the serious violations of workers’ rights domestically.

Kazakhstan’s partners who voiced concerns now have to be consistent and urge the government to act on the ILO Committee’s conclusions and take meaningful steps to improve labor rights protections in Kazakhstan. The government should start by registering the KNPRK, releasing jailed unionists, and lifting a mandatory affiliation requirement for trade unions in Kazakhstan. 

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