Kazakhstan: Unions push for labour reforms to address public unrest

(Photo: AFP)

Massive protest actions erupted in Kazakhstan on 2 January against a sudden and steep increase in the prices of fuel. The protests, which began in the oil-producing city of Zhanaozen, quickly spread to other cities, including the nation's largest city, Almaty. 

In the span of just two days, the protests, which began as peaceful demonstrations, turned violent, with many incidents of open confrontations between protesters and the police resulting in the death and injury of many people. The protests also became political, with demonstrators calling for major political reforms in the government.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev responded by declaring a state of emergency and called on member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), such as Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, to deploy troops to Kazakhstan to “restore peace and order.” The Kazakhstan government claimed that the protests were “infiltrated by foreign terrorist organisations.” This was met with criticisms from different sectors. They questioned the legitimacy of their government to request for foreign troop deployment and the claim of the protests’ infiltration by terrorist groups.  

On 7 January, the Federation of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan expressed its serious concern over the worsening peace and order situation in the country. It urged the President to call on the government’s security forces to recognise the people’s right to protest and exercise maximum tolerance. It also called on the government to preserve the rule of law.

Other trade unions echoed the federation’s call. They pointed to the workers’ low salaries, infringement on labour rights and the lack of constructive social dialogues as the main causes of the public unrest. They called on the government to immediately implement a set of measures to address the workers’ woes:

  • Reform the wage system, labour and trade union legislation, preservation and creation of new jobs, and strengthening of state and public regulations on labour law compliance.

  • Urgent ratification of the ILO Convention No. 131 on minimum wage fixing and No. 102 on minimum standards of social security.

  • Genuine social dialogue between the government, employers' groups and workers by reforming the social partnership system and adopting a new law on social partnership.

  • Strengthen the role of civil society institutions.

In the last couple of decades, Kazakhstan boasted of having one of the strongest-performing economies in Central Asia, mainly due to its oil production and 40 percent share of the world's uranium resources. However, trade unions explained that the country’s so-called economic growth did not trickle down to the workers, many of whom are receiving salaries less than USD 100 per month.

Large-scale corruption is also a key problem in the country. In 2012, the World Economic Forum (WEF) cited corruption as the biggest obstacle in doing business in the country. The World Bank (WB) also listed Kazakhstan as a corruption hotspot.