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Does Georgia’s Amended Labor Law Serve as Lesson to Armenia?

The Government of Armenia is currently in the process of liberalizing the country’s Labor Law; neighboring Georgia underwent these changes back in 2006-2007. Tbilisi-based researcher Tamar Keburia, who has examined the state of workers’ rights and labor standards in her home country, talks to Epress.am about the impacts the legislative changes have thus far had on workers’ working conditions and their opportunities for self-expression.

The government of Armenia is currently in the process of changing the code of workers’ rights, claiming that the older law, which they have deemed a leftover of Soviet times, should be liberalised.  What it does is to deprive workers of some of minimal standards of working conditions, and work conditions are allowed to be negotiated between the employer and employee, directly. Has the Labor in Georgia been amended recently, or at any point since the Independence?  If so, are there any specific points you would underline in those changes?

– In 2006-2007 years, reformist political approach was developed and introduced to Georgian political real known as neoliberal politics. During these years, a lot of changes took place not only in labor legislation field but also in other economic as well as social politics. Due to this politics, labor code got liberalized, employment and working standards got deregulated, labor inspection mechanism and other labor monitoring institutions were abolished. These all were implemented in the name of progress and economic development in order to achieve the reduction in corruption level, to creating a desirable environment for foreign investors and foster accelerated economic development. However, all these reforms brought the country to the extremes – the degree of poverty increased, the level of inequality reached its peak, the size of middle-class population shrank and most of the workers found themselves in highly vulnerable condition with short contracts, extremely low bargaining power and without any kind of social or economic protection. The state totally withdraw itself from the worker-employer relationship and put all responsibility on them. Due to deregulated and liberalized labor code, employers could hire and fire working force as they wanted, without additional liabilities. All these stimulated a high level of workers contentious and grievances, which was followed by workers’ protests, demonstration, and strikes.

What are the most major fields workers rights are not protected in? Mining and metallurgy, perhaps? Do you know the percentage of workers employed in those industries? Is there an impartial state body which oversees that the companies provide proper working conditions?  We have had many deaths in mines recently. But the Committee which looks into these cases has a state official and one representative from that very mining company as members, so it can’t actually be impartial, can it?

– Since 2011, 1209 people have died due to working accidents, according to official statistics. Most of these accidents happen in construction, mining, manufacturing and transport sectors. In 2012, newly elected government of “Georgian Dream” coalition started to re-regulate labor politics and re-established the already abolished institution of labor inspection, technical monitoring affair and made few amendments in the labor code, to make it more “balanced.” Unfortunately, their attempts for re-regulation were not sufficient and goal-oriented but rather superficial. These changes did not result in reforming the labor condition especially for people employed in the heavy industry sector. Nowadays, only 5% of whole workers are occupying heavy industry sectors, whereas more than 58% are self-employed and more than 18% are employed in service sectors, facing even harder working conditions, with the highest vulnerability level. As already mentioned, labor inspection mechanism was officially re-established in 2013 but the efficiency of their work and positive consequences of this superficial institution is still under question.

Would you talk briefly about workers strikes under different rules? Judging by your presentation, for instance, there seemed to have been fewer protests during the Georgian Dream phase. What do you think was the reason for this? The protests have been proliferating recently; do you think it is because of worsening working conditions or workers’ becoming more aware of their rights?

– Throughout the research, it got obvious that there were three main phases during the 2010-2016 workers’ movement. One matches with the years of 2010-2011 when there was Saakashvili’s government still ruling the country. During these time, there were very few protests because of the high level of policing, control and threats. The public sphere was closed for any kind of popular politics and people were afraid to go on strike. Despite these, there were still three cases of workers’ protests which were local, isolated from other issues than the problems with their factories, and also there were very short protests. Since the new political power led by Bidzina Ivanishvili entered the political realm and rally for the elections of 2012 launched, the authoritative power of former government decreased and a huge amount of contention accumulated among workers finally resulting in the uprising of workers movements and reaching its peak in 2012. From 2012 to 2014, one can identify the high level of expectations among workers that their realities might be changes and working conditions could be improved under Ivanishvili’s government, but this never come true. Studying the dynamics of workers’ movement and their protests illustrated that 2014 was the final years when workers lost the ultimate hopes for getting things better for them. Due to the disappointment and feeling of being betrayed by the Georgian Dream government, whose main motto and promise during elections was to restore the justice and equity for everyone, workers lost the hope for any kind of activism and public politics. So in 2015, there was not a single case of workers’ protests or strikes, but silence. However, 2016 was a total shift in workers’ contentious politics. Being supported by various activist groups, local nongovernmental organizations, and other civil society groups, workers rediscovered their potential for resistance, strike, and activism. As in 2012, 2016 was a year of the new uprising where workers demand not only concerned their private working condition or wages but also they state much wider claims and demands for changing labor politics, social protection politics and economic politics of the country. They have developed a wider vision of politicizing their demands to refer not only their micro-level grievances but also larger and macro-structural problems which were causing the tough working condition for all workers of the country.

What is the relationship like between workers and activists?  Do (left) activists ever offer their support and solidarity to workers? What attitude do workers have towards these activists? Any examples?

– Since the public sphere got more open for popular politics, more and more activist groups emerged, among them self organized students, green movements, feminist groups, queers and other. If in the beginning only students and other activist groups, who worked on labor issues were interested in supported worker’s movements, during the protests of 2016 it was clear that all activist groups from different fields expressed the solidarity and supported workers’ protests. The 14-days long strike in Tkibuli is a striking example of this (see video, English subtitles available). It was openly supported by various activist groups who spent days and nights in Tkibuli, supporting coal miners, bringing food and hot drinks for them, organizing small events in Tbilisi in order to collect money and help workers on strike. It is also worth to mention that after this strike, the ties between different activist groups, student groups and workers got very strong and reliable.

This research and in Georgia and Tamar Keburia’s trip to Yerevan was made possible with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation South Caucasus office.