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A worker stands inside one of the manganese tunnels. Chiatura City, Georgia. © 2014 Daro Sulakauri

(Tbilisi) – Georgia’s parliament is scheduled to begin discussing a package of amendments to the country’s labor legislation this week, Human Rights Watch said today. If adopted, the amendments would offer much greater protection to workers and go a long way toward bringing Georgia’s labor legislation in line with international standards and good practices.  

The draft amendments envisage strengthening the labor inspectorate and regulating work hours, overtime, night work, mandatory weekly rest, and breaks during shifts.

“Georgia’s lack of labor regulations has led to poor labor practices that put thousands of workers at heightened risks,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Parliament should do the right thing and adopt reforms urgently needed to stop abusive practices and improve workers’ health and safety.”

Parliament’s Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee will start reviewing the legislative package on June 18. The bill is slated for the plenary debate next week.

Years of deregulation have left Georgian workers without adequate protections, Human Rights Watch said. In an effort to attract foreign investment, in 2006, Georgia abolished its Labor Inspectorate and dramatically reduced worker protections in the labor code by removing provisions on weekly rest, limits on overtime hours, and breaks during shifts. The 2006 labor code also made it possible to dismiss workers without notice and for any reason.

Workers in Georgia paid a high price for deregulation and loose labor protections and oversight, Human Rights Watch said. One independent study found that deaths at work had soared by 74 percent since 2006, most of them in mining and construction.

In its 2019 report “‘No Year without Deaths’: A Decade of Deregulation Puts Georgian Miners at Risk,” Human Rights Watch documented how weak labor protections and limited government oversight have allowed mining practices that undermine safety to flourish. The research found that workers in some manganese mines work 12-hour shifts underground, including at night, for 15 straight days, resulting in exhaustion and increasing the likelihood of workplace accidents and injuries.

In interviews with Human Rights Watch, miners said that in a rush to meet quotas or without sufficient rest, workers had suffered deep cuts, were buried under rocks as roofs collapsed, lost limbs, suffered concussions, or narrowly avoided serious accidents.

While the Human Rights Watch research focused on practices in Georgia’s coal and manganese extractive industries, the findings about lax regulations undermining workers’ safety have broad implications for all sectors of the economy in Georgia, Human Rights Watch said.

Since 2013, Georgia has gradually introduced more labor protections, including establishing a Labor Inspectorate in 2015 and further expanding its powers in 2019 to address health and safety in the workplace.

However, regulations on labor rights and oversight have yet to fully meet international standards and good practices. The Labor Inspectorate has no mandate to address the broader impact of long working hours, production pressures, and difficult working conditions. If adopted, the bill would grant the Labor Inspectorate more independence and expand its mandate to monitor all labor standards guaranteed under Georgian legislation.

The bill also proposes regulating working hours, shifts, rest time between shifts, and night work, imposing a cap on overtime work, and establishing minimum overtime pay, among other things. It would also introduce key guarantees related to equal treatment and nondiscrimination. In doing so, the bill goes a long way to closing gaps for worker protections in labor legislation.

Government policies should not jeopardize workers’ safety as a means of increasing productivity or lowering production costs for businesses, Human Rights Watch said. Appropriate and meaningful labor and safety standards can and should be at the heart of successful business and economic development. Industry in some countries, including the United States and Australia, took off and expanded considerably even after they put in place safety and labor regulations.

Companies can also incur significant costs from lax labor regulations and resulting poor labor practices. Temporary production shutdowns, whether caused by accidents leading to death and injuries or by demands for adequate labor standards, have resulted in significant financial losses to manganese and coal mines.

International human rights standards guarantee everyone the right to just and safe working conditions, reasonable limitations on work hours, fair pay, freedom of movement, and respect for and protection of family and private life. International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, many of which Georgia has not yet ratified, set out standards for acceptable working conditions, as well as proper oversight and enforcement. Georgia has also made commitments in agreements with the US and the European Union to strengthen its labor laws and oversight and enforcement systems.

“The gradual approach to re-regulation in Georgia has not fully reflected the risks Georgia’s workers are taking daily, without adequate protections for their rights,” Gogia said. “Parliament has an opportunity to create a new legacy of labor rights protection and correct the errors of the past.”

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