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Kyrgyzstan: Increased Interference in Trade Union Activities

Withdraw Restrictive Bill; Ensure Right to Organize

A protester listens to a speaker during a rally in front of the government building in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Wednesday, October 14, 2020.  © 2020 Vladimir Voronin/AP Photo

(Bishkek) – Kyrgyz authorities have increased scrutiny of trade union leaders, including through criminal investigations, and are unduly interfering in legitimate trade union activities in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

On November 21, 2020, the Office of the Prime Minister barred the country’s main trade union body, the Federation of Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan, from holding its December 4 congress, when elections for the position of chairperson were planned.

“Kyrgyzstan’s leadership should respect the right of trade unions to associate and organize freely, not meddle in internal trade union activities and processes,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They should allow the Federation of Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan to organize their congress without any further government interference or delay.”

Kyrgyz authorities have increased their scrutiny of trade union members of the federation over the last year. In October 2019, parliament formed a commission tasked with the vague mandate of “studying the implementation of the trade union law” in Kyrgyzstan. Eldiyar Karachalov, chair of the trade union of construction workers, a union member of the federation, said that the commission asked trade union leaders to provide extensive information about their organizational, financial, and economic activities.

Trade union leaders have resisted providing such information to the parliamentary commission, contending that the demand is unjustified government interference. Article 4 of Kyrgyzstan’s Law “On Trade Unions,” most recently revised in 2004, provides that trade unions’ activities are to be independent of government. 

The parliamentary commission ordered the federation to cancel its upcoming congress until the commission’s “study” is complete. The decision, which Human Rights Watch has seen, was approved by Kyrgyzstan’s vice prime minister on November 21. Efforts by the federation to reschedule its congress have been unsuccessful. Preventing trade unions from holding meetings or a congress, particularly on questionable legal authority, violates trade union rights and is incompatible with international labor and human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said.

In February, trade union members of the federation voted to remove the then-chairperson, Mirbek Asanakunov, from office and elected his deputy, Rysgul Babaeva, to succeed him. Asanakunov unsuccessfully brought two court challenges against the federation’s decision, in February and March.

According to members of the Central Asia Labour Rights Monitoring Mission, a network of Central Asian and international trade union and human rights groups, since February, law enforcement authorities in Bishkek have initiated over 50 criminal investigations into trade union activists involving interrogations and searches of their homes, based on claims made by Asanakunov. Authorities in June opened criminal cases against at least four members of the Federation Council, the highest decision-making body within the federation, who signed the decision to remove Asanakunov from office.

The police informed the four they were suspected of “corporate raiding” or hostile takeover (article 219 of the Criminal Code), “forging documents” (article 359 of the Criminal Code), and “abuse of authority in a commercial or other organization” (article 233 of the Criminal Code). The charges carry a maximum sentence of seven-and-a-half years in prison.

The council members’ lawyer refutes these charges as groundless. The lawyer’s legal brief, seen by Human Rights Watch, says that as the federation is not a commercial venture, its council members cannot be charged with “corporate raiding” and that none of the council members has any authority over administrative or financial matters in the federation, which means they could not have “abused power.”

The harassment of the four trade union leaders takes place against the backdrop of parliament’s efforts to push through a restrictive draft trade union law. The draft law, if adopted, would obligate industrial and regional trade unions to join a higher-tier trade union body, interfering in the right of trade unions to freely determine their own structures. The federation would be deemed the only national-tier trade union body recognized by the national government. It would have the authority to approve charters and other activities of lower-tier unions, interfering with their independence.

Even though the draft failed to pass the third reading in parliament in March, which is required for it to become law and was returned for a second reading, the bill again received that second reading on November 5. The decision to advance the bill in November was made by a caretaker parliament, which has been in place after a disputed parliamentary election in October.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has said the draft law would create a “monopoly” on union organizing and urged lawmakers to revise the bill to maintain “trade union diversity.” It also expressed concern that the draft violates key international treaties on freedom of association: Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize and Convention 98 on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining. Kyrgyzstan is a party to both treaties.

The draft trade union law is also incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and Kyrgyzstan’s constitution, which guarantee freedom of association for trade unions.

“The draft trade union law, if adopted, would cripple independent trade unions in Kyrgyzstan, undermining workers’ right to organize independently and freely,” Sultanalieva said. “Kyrgyzstan should be protecting and facilitating freedom of association, not finding ways to undermine it.”

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