After nearly 16 months behind bars, trade union leaders Nurbek Kushakbaev and Amin Eleusinov are finally back home with their families in western Kazakhstan.

Nurbek Kushakbaev handcuffed in an Astana court. Astana, April 7, 2017.

© 2017 Timur Aitmukhanbetov (RFE/RL)

Kushakbaev and Eleusinov were arrested on January 20 last year after participating in a peaceful workers’ protest against the unjustified forced closure of the country’s main independent union group, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK). Early last month, courts granted Kushakbaev and Eleusinov parole, and they were released from prison two weeks later.

Kazakhstan has long violated workers’ rights, but the government is gaining a reputation at the international level for cracking down on freedom of association in the workplace and the right to organize – rights enshrined in key conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO), to which Kazakhstan is party.

Amin Yeleusinov.

© 2017 Sania Toiken (RFE/RL)

The trade unionists’ release on parole coincided with a high-level mission to Kazakhstan by the ILO, which in 2017 criticized the country’s “persistent lack of progress” in addressing worker abuses and demanded the Kazakh government take steps to improve, including amending the country’s restrictive 2014 trade union law and letting the KNPRK go about its work in peace. But so far Kazakhstan has taken no meaningful steps to address these, or other, violations noted by the ILO.

And the ILO is not the only body that’s voiced its concerns. Last December, the European Parliament condemned the forced closure of KNPRK and urged Kazakhstan to revise its problematic trade union and labor laws. The United States Trade Representative is set to review Kazakhstan’s labor rights record later this month too.

If the US trade representative finds that Kazakhstan is violating internationally protected workers’ rights (which it should, given Kazakhstan’s track record), Kazakhstan could lose more than just its reputation. Such a decision would have significant financial consequences for Kazakhstan, as the outcome could affect duty-free trade Kazakhstan currently enjoys with the US.

The Kazakh authorities should now have Kushakbaev’s and Eleusinov’s convictions quashed and lift the ongoing restrictions on their engagement in trade union activism – as well as those imposed on KNPRK President Larisa Kharkova. It should also reform its deeply flawed trade union law, as the ILO has been demanding for four years.

This would help the country shed its terrible reputation for labor rights, but also be the right thing to do for workers across Kazakhstan.