Equaltimes: Conviction of trade union leaders: “another nail in the coffin of the independent trade union movement in Kazakhstan”

The global trade union movement is calling on the government of Kazakhstan to review the conviction of a prominent labour leader in a case that has been described as a “blatant violation of human and trade union rights in Kazakhstan.”

On 25 July 2017 a court in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent sentenced the former leader of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (CNTUK or KNPRK), Larisa Kharkova, to four years of restrictions on her freedom of movement and a ban on holding public office for five years, on what unions and human rights organisations are calling false charges of embezzlement.

Kharkova was also sentenced to 100 hours of forced labour, which, activists say, contradicts Kazakhstan’s legislative ban on any form of forced labour in the country.

Kharkova’s conviction follows the closure of the KNPRK by a court ruling in January in attempt to crackdown on striking oil workers in the western region of Mangystau.

At a news conference in the city of Almaty on 1 August, Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, criticised the government’s attacks on independent trade unions as “illegal meddling” in the activities of a public organisation which has the right to decide how its own funds are spent.

These attacks, Zhovtis said, “have only one objective and this objective is very simple. It is, dare I say, purely political and it is not a judicial issue”. He added: “This is an attempt to deal with a trade union in conditions of the deteriorating economic situation and possible social protests in order to bring under control those who are capable of mobilising workers or of expressing their concerns.”

Zhovtis also condemned legal inaccuracies in the ruling on Kharkova’s case as the sentence involves the seizure of her property and 100 hours of forced labour.

According to Kazakh law, only property obtained through criminal activity or linked to a committed crime should be seized. Additionally, as a signatory to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No 29 concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour, Kharkova shouldn’t have been sentenced to forced labour, especially as community service was also an option.

Huge blow to Kazakhstan’s global ambitions

Critics have observed that Kharkova’s conviction could be very damaging to Kazakhstan’s international standing, as well as its aspirations to become one of the world’s foremost developed countries.

“Larisa Kharkova’s conviction and the restrictions on her trade union activities is another nail in the coffin of the independent trade union movement in Kazakhstan,” Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The government should immediately stop its relentless attempt to suppress workers’ rights and allow Kharkova to continue her work.”

Rittmann said that the Kazakh government’s attack on labour rights – its restrictive trade union law, shuttering independent trade unions and targeting outspoken trade union leaders with politically-motivated criminal charges – was an impediment to its global and economic aspirations, such as joining the world’s 30 most developed countries by 2050, as outlined in the country’s ambitious plan for socio-economic development, ‘Strategy 2050’.

“The government’s ongoing labour rights crackdown stand contrary to international labour standards, which many foreign investors recognise the importance of upholding,” she told Equal Times.

Anton Leppik, executive secretary of the Pan-European Regional Council of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), also told Equal Times that the case against Kharkova was undoubtedly initiated and promoted by state security bodies, given its close interest in the activities of the KNPRK, and particularly its relations with oil workers’ unions in western Kazakhstan.

The ITUC has submitted a formal complaint to the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) in relation to the attacks on the KNPRK and its leadership, Leppik noted. “It is a long process, but we are sure that the CFA will be strong about the government’s non-compliance with its international obligations. Already the Committee on Application of Standards of the International Labour Conference has recognised it,” he said, adding that the ITUC and its various national affiliates were in contact with EU institutions, the OECD, the US and other governments, as well as individual companies with business interests in Kazakhstan to put pressure on Kazakh authorities.

He suggested that Kazakhstan might lose access to the US market because its national trade union centre, the AFL-CIO, had raised an issue within the General System of Preferences framework, as this privilege status can only be given to countries that comply with international labour standards.

During a visit to the capital city of Astana in February, authorities told ITUC officials that despite the withdrawal of KNPRK’s registration, its structures could register a new confederation. “Indeed, it is possible, but it requires a hell of a lot of work, given the complicated procedures installed by the [new] law on trade unions that was recognised by the ITUC and the ILO as a clear violation of the ILO Convention 87,” Leppik explained.

“Yet, when the individual leaders are under attack and pressure, it is difficult to bring together remnants of the confederation, taking into account the size and diversity of the country. And clearly, the limitation of movement and restrictions on holding public office that is in Larisa’s sentence is a means to prevent her from playing any role in trade union movement.”

Lyudmila Ekzarkhova, the KNPRK’s press secretary, said that Kharkova’s case was a “litmus test” to prevent others from creating independent trade unions in Kazakhstan but the remnants of the confederation plans to set up a new one.

“We still have three trade unions which are founders of the KNPRK and we are now at a stage of creating a new nationwide trade union organisation. Even if Kharkova cannot hold public positions, we still have leaders who are capable of occupying Kharkova’s leadership position and of leading our nationwide organisation in the right direction,” Ekzarkhova said.