Kazakhstan’s Future Is Bound Up With Greater Trade Union Engagement

Kazakhstan’s Future Is Bound Up With Greater Trade Union Engagement

From Hugh Williamson, Director, Europe & Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch, Berlin, Germany

Sir, Your Big Read on Kazakhstan (“ ‘Bigger than one person’”, November 4) correctly notes that the challenge facing the Central Asian country goes beyond “just picking the next strongman — or woman” when current president Nursultan Nazarbayev, 76, dies. As the article states, the country needs major political reforms, including meaningful consultation with civil society and other groups, but “the appetite for political change is limited”. This does not bode well for a country in an unstable region that is struggling with a severe economic downturn.

Take for example the government’s handling of labour and trade union reforms — a key concern in an export economy with many foreign investors. Mr Nazarbayev himself identified this as a crucial issue following extended labour strikes in western Kazakhstan in 2011 that ended in violence, leaving at least 12 people dead. However, rather than promoting greater engagement by independent trade unions in shaping the country’s future, new laws adopted in recent years have tightened controls on these bodies and on collective bargaining. Union leaders and labour activists face harassment and sometimes dismissal for legitimate trade union activities. Kazakhstan ignored advice on these laws from reputable expert bodies such as the International Labour Organisation, which has subsequently twice reprimanded Astana for not respecting basic international labour standards.

Hugh Williamson

Director, Europe & Central Asia Division,

Human Rights Watch,

Berlin, Germany

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