Kazakhstan: Striking Workers Made to Pay Damages for Not Eating

Kazakhstan: The Labor Crackdown and Possible Unintended Consequences

A court in western Kazakhstan has ordered oil workers who went on a hunger strike as part of a labor dispute to pay 3.4 million tenge ($10,000) in compensation for damages purportedly incurred by their refusal to eat, Eurasianet reported.

Mangystau district court in the city of Aktau on January 24 found that the 28 laborers had caused their employer, Oil Construction Company, or OCC, financial losses, despite the fact that they continued to work for the duration of their protest.

The standoff between Aktau-based OCC and its employees was sparked by a court ruling at the start of the month revoking registration for an independent national trade union that laborers have said has been more aggressive in defending their interests than state-approved unions. On January 5, one day after Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK in its Russian initials) was denied its registration over registration technicalities, OCC workers declared a hunger strike.

After OCC management failed to reach a negotiated settlement, the company turned to the courts in Aktau with a plea to have the strike declared illegal. It also asked for the court to require the protesting laborers to vacate company premises in which they were conducting a sit-in. The court upheld the company’s request.

Workers and their representatives expressed dismay at that decision, declaring that their decision to refuse food was a matter of personal conscience and that their protest had no impact on the company’s productivity.

Following up on that ruling, OCC pursued an additional civil suit demanding damages over the hunger strike, also successfully.

Around 300 OCC employees had taken part in the hunger strike, which ran from January 5 through to last weekend, when they were evicted from the location where the protest was taking place.

In a separate but related development, police in Aktau on January 21 detained Amin Yeleusinov, an independent union leader at OCC, on suspicion of defrauding workers at the company. Few details have been made public about the specifics of the charges being leveled at Yeleusinov, but going by a report by an Aktau-based state broadcaster, they appear to concern the size of his salary, which is paid from union accounts funded by membership dues. The broadcaster, Kazakhstan-Aktau, cited what it claimed where accounting documents showing that Yeleusinov was receiving a monthly salary of 843,000 tenge at the end of 2013, but then suddenly 1.4 million tenge the following month.

Police have said Yeleusinov, who has been flown to a detention facility in Astana, is being investigated on charges punishable by up to 12 years in jail.

While the veracity or otherwise of the allegations against Yeleusinov require further clarification and investigation, the timing of his arrest appears suspicious and convenient.

Another worker representative, Nurbek Kushakbayev, who is deputy head of KNPRK, has also been arrested on suspicion of inciting what has not been ruled an illegal strike action.

These detentions have drawn sharp criticism from the Paris-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), with which KNPK is affiliated.

“Kazakhstan’s Constitution gives supremacy to international treaties over national law, and by continuing to suppress freedom of association, the authorities are effectively acting against their own national Constitution,” ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said in a statement. “These actions are reminiscent of some of the more repressive regimes, such as Egypt, and have no place in a country that seeks respect and trust in the international community.”

OCC, a daughter company of national energy concern KazMunaiGaz, employs around 1,880 people and is responsible for the construction and installation of support infrastructure for the oil industry, such as roads, power transmissions lines and oil derricks. It bills itself as one of the largest construction operations in the oil-rich Mangystau region, of which Aktau is the capital.

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