Ten years ago, on Kazakhstan’s December 16 Independence Day, law enforcement officers opened fire on a group of striking oil workers and others who had gathered in the central square of Zhanaozen, a small oil town in Western Kazakhstan.
Fourteen people were killed and many dozens were injured.
But the horror didn’t stop there.
Over the next few days, the authorities shut down communications and blocked access to the city, while they detained hundreds of people and tortured many of them. A striking oil worker, Maksat Dosmagambetov, later testified in court that he had been tortured. Another victim, not even connected to the strike, was Bazarbai Kenzhebaev, a 50-year old grandfather who had been trying to visit his new grandchild and daughter in the hospital. He died at home days after police beat him in custody.
Kazakh authorities claimed they were responding to mass riots. But what preceded the events that day was the unresolved seven-month oil workers’ strike in Zhanaozen. And what has followed – despite government claims to the contrary – has been a sustained crackdown on independent organizing by workers.
Ten years on, spontaneous strikes, many of them deemed “illegal” by authorities, remain common. The number spiked this year during the economic downturn related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and included new groups of workers, such as those in the gig economy. The government continued its efforts to thwart labor organizing, even at a time when employees deserve extra support.
In many ways, the trajectory of labor rights restriction in Kazakhstan can be traced to what happened in Zhanaozen in 2011 — and the aftermath.
It started with the government punishing the most outspoken Zhanaozen oil workers with lengthy prison sentences following an unfair trial in June 2012. The government introduced a new repressive trade union law in June 2014, which imposed burdensome registration requirements on existing trade unions, and required them to affiliate with a higher-tier union, in blatant contradiction to international labor rights norms.
The law led to the closure of independent trade unions in the country, reinforcing a monopoly held by pro-government trade unions.
In January 2017, a court liquidated the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK), the country’s largest independent trade union confederation, which had made multiple unsuccessful attempts to reregister with the Justice Ministry. The authorities also brought criminal charges against Larisa Kharkova, the confederation’s leader, and imprisoned Nurbek Kushakbaev and Amin Eleusinov, labor leaders who had participated in a protest against the forced closure.
Kazakhstan’s anti-union steps have not gone unnoticed. Since 2015, Kazakhstan’s persistent violations of International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on freedom of association and the right to organize has led the ILO repeatedly to single out Kazakhstan for review by its Committee on the Application of Standards. In 2018, Kazakhstan was compelled to accept a high-level tripartite ILO mission to the country, and in May 2020, to finally, if reluctantly, to adopt amendments to its repressive 2014 trade union law.
After this year’s review, the Committee’s most critical review yet, Kazakhstan is required to report back on measures taken to comply with the conventions and accept an ILO “direct contacts” mission, to address problems directly with government and social partners, such as trade unions.
International law guarantees workers the right to organize into trade unions of their own choosing. But Kazakhstan’s authorities show little intent of respecting this right, and it remains extremely difficult for workers in Kazakhstan to independently organize. The suspension in February of an independent industrial oil workers union for six months for allegedly failing to register in accordance with the law is a case in point.
For the union to resume activities, it had to show it had member organizations in over half the country’s regions, major cities, and capital city. It has all but one of the required registered affiliates. But the Justice Ministry in Atyrau Region has twice denied registration to the union’s affiliate there. The grounds for denial have been minor, even absurd. The trade union’s application for registration was denied in September, in part, on grounds that it had paid 18,960 tenge in registration fees, when the required amount was 18,960.50 tenge, a difference of less than one U.S. cent. It remains suspended.
Kazakhstan is marking 30 years of independence on December 16. But on this Independence Day, the 10-year anniversary of the Zhanaozen events, let’s also spare a thought for the oil workers, and all workers, in Kazakhstan, whose fight for their rights continues.