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Kazakhstan’s Workers’ Rights Crackdown Under Fresh Scrutiny

Reforms Urgently Needed to Protect Unions and Employees

A worker walks past oil tanks in southern Kazakhstan.  © 2016 Reuters
As the International Labour Organisation (ILO) celebrates its Centenary this week, one of its key committees decided today to examine once again the grim situation for labor rights in Kazakhstan.

The move is not a surprise. In the two years since the ILO’s Committee on the Application of Standards, which examines how states comply with ILO treaties, last reviewed Kazakhstan, its government has dragged its feet on much-needed legal reforms and continued to try to silence critical voices in the workplace.

As the heavy-handed police response to peaceful protests during the presidential elections has shown, the Kazakh government has little tolerance for dissent, including in the labor sector. In recent years, Kazakhstan has carried out a concerted crackdown against independent trade unions. In 2017, authorities shut down the main independent country-wide labor union and prosecuted or jailed members on spurious charges.

Although two leaders were paroled and a third was spared jail time when convicted, independent unions are still denied registration or are shuttered by court order, and union leaders continue to be harassed.

So, the ILO’s upcoming review of Kazakhstan is a key opportunity to register serious concern.

In June 2018, the United States’ main trade policy body reviewed a complaint against Kazakhstan for violating labor standards, which may lead to suspension of US trade benefits. The European Parliament has twice endorsed the ILO’s conclusions and urged Kazakhstan to revise its repressive trade union laws. And EU diplomats have also raised labor concerns directly with Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan’s repressive tactics may harm the country’s chances of joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a forum of the world’s richest countries.

Kazakhstan’s partners should actively engage in the ILO committee’s upcoming review of Kazakhstan and demand the government implements urgent reforms. Meanwhile, Kazakh authorities should revise the country’s deeply flawed Trade Union Law and Labor Code, end harassment and attacks on independent trade unionists, and allow independent unions to register and operate.

Only then might Kazakhstan have a real shot at meeting its economic and global aspirations.

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