As pressure built against Kazakhstan at the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) conference in Geneva this month to address the country’s poor record on trade union rights, authorities back home are seeking to jail an independent trade union leader.
Erlan Baltabay is the outspoken leader of a local trade union of oil workers in Shymkent, a city in southern Kazakhstan. He is on trial, facing charges of misappropriating approximately US$28,000 in union dues. On June 25, the prosecutor asked for an 8-year prison sentence and a lifetime ban on holding trade union leadership positions. The court is due to deliver the verdict any day.
Baltabay doesn’t deny the funds are in his possession. But he denies there was any fraud or misappropriation and contends he was forced to act to safeguard the union dues after his trade union was suspended in 2015. Baltabay’s trade union was among a number of unions unable to reregister that year in accordance with the restrictive 2014 trade union law.
Baltabay and his lawyer have also argued in court that the individual who filed the complaint against him has no standing to do so under Kazakh law and that the authorities should have declined to bring criminal charges.
Baltabay has been in the authorities’ crosshairs in the past, including being subject to a criminal investigation on the overbroad charge of “inciting social discord” in 2013 (the case was ultimately dropped). In 2017, he spoke about the repression of independent trade unions at the International Labor Conference in Geneva.
At this year’s ILO gathering, the Committee on the Application of Standards criticized Kazakhstan for “its persistent lack of progress” fulfilling its obligations under ILO Convention 87 on freedom of association and the right to organize. It decided to include its conclusions in a special paragraph, one of the ILO’s highest forms of sanctions. Kazakhstan must report back to the ILO in September.
Having its prosecutors seek the imprisonment of an independent trade union leader and impose a lifetime ban on trade union leadership will only reinforce the ILO’s concerns about Kazakhstan’s treatment of independent trade unions. It would be far better for the Kazakh government to take much-needed and urgent steps to address the ILO’s concerns, so come September, the government has something positive to report.