October 18, 2011—"The labor law only serves the interests of the government and the oligarchs."
||GTUC President Irakli Petriashvili says that his union has lost 100,000 members because of the 2006 labor law and the government’s attacks on unions. Photo by ITUC
An ultraliberal labor law coupled with repeated attacks by the authorities has lost Georgia’s biggest union, the Georgian Trade Unions Confederation (GTUC), more than 100,000 members. Its president, Irakli Petriashvili, outlines the discrimination Georgian trade unions have to deal with and the consequences of abolishing the labor inspectorate.
The ultraliberal labor law adopted by Georgia in 2006 is being constantly denounced by trade unions at the national and international level. What are the most problematic aspects of this legislation?
The labor law is in essence discriminatory; it does no more than lay down the obligations for workers and grant rights to employers. It is a labor law in name only, as it violates the international standards of the International Labor Organization, the European Social Charter, and other agreements with the European Union, such as the GSP+ trade agreement.
There are two articles of this legislation that facilitate discrimination, and particularly anti-union discrimination. According to Article 5(8), an employer is under no obligation to explain the reason for not hiring a job applicant. This refusal may be based on the person’s union membership, as some employers ask in the application form whether the applicant belongs to a union or what his or her opinion is on unions. The discrimination may also be based on the applicant’s political beliefs, gender, etc.
Article 37(d) allows employers to fire workers without justifying their dismissal. It thus gives employers unlimited licence to fire workers at any time, without notice. The Georgian Constitution stipulates that all forms of discrimination are prohibited, but this Article allows employers to conceal the real reason for dismissing a worker, making it impossible to prove the discrimination. Employers might dismiss people because they belong to a union, or for refusing sexual relations, or for practicing a different religion, or for being part of a different ethnic minority, or for having a different political opinion, etc.
The labor law also limits overtime pay and undermines the value of collective bargaining agreements. We do have the right to bargain collectively but employers have the right to conclude a collective agreement with just two workers, which means they can ignore the demands of thousands of others. It means that a collective agreement signed with two workers has the same value as an agreement signed with the majority of the workers!
Have you lost many members because of this labor law?
We currently have 219,000 members and have lost over 100,000 because of the labor law introduced in 2006. Most of them did not leave straight after the law was passed but over time, as employers started to exploit the advantages it grants them, and we started conducting union activities to defend the workers. Many of our members were also lost as a result of the government’s anti-union activities. The government not only drew up a labor law tailor-made for employers (a process the trade unions and civil society in general were not included in), but it also used illegal methods to fight against unions, forcing our members to write union resignation letters or lose their jobs. From August 8 to 12, 2011, for example, in three regions of Georgia, more than 2,400 unionized public employees were forced to write union resignation letters. They were called by the local authorities (administrations, mayors, local councils ...), which explained that they had received instructions from higher up in the power structure and the security forces stating that unions could not exist in this region and that if they refused to leave the union they would easily be fired. The wording of each letter of resignation was identical.
Another way of attacking unions is by abolishing the check-off or payroll deduction system. In the three regions where state employees faced intimidation in August, the system was totally abolished for the teachers’ and rail unions and partially abolished in the case of agricultural, public-sector and health workers’ unions. Most of the members we have lost did not write resignation letters; they are workers who are no longer able to pay their dues because the payroll deduction system has been abolished.
What was the latest serious anti-union violation?
On August 1, 2011, a union was formed at the Hercules steelworks in Kutaisi. On August 11, instead of the negotiations we had requested, the management fired six elected representatives, and at the same time as we were calling for recognition, another group of unionists were dismissed, between August 11 and 13, taking the total number fired to 17. A token strike was held on September 2, then an all-out strike on September 13, the chief demand being the unconditional reinstatement of the workers fired over their trade union membership. On September 15, more than 200 police officers attacked the peaceful strikers, despite the fact that the action had been organized in line with all the legal obligations imposed by the labor law, which is very strict. Around 40 striking workers were arrested over a space of four hours. Prior to their release they were forced to sign a statement whereby they committed never to take part in a protest or strike again. In the evening, the management at the steelworks and the police called in a number of workers, issuing threats, telling them to go back to work or face punishment and arrest. The following day, a group of workers were brought to the works in a police vehicle! On September 18, three very active strikers who had come to tell our lawyers what had happened (with a view to taking court action against the illegal acts perpetrated by the police) were placed under administrative arrest for 10 days.
How are trade unions viewed by the public and the media in Georgia?
All the national television stations are controlled by the government, barring one or two where we are given more of a chance to express ourselves. The written press and radio are freer.
According to a USAID survey, 27 percent of the population trusts in unions. It’s a reasonable level because Soviet-style trade unionism was totally discredited and since our independence (in 1991) until 2005, the unions had not managed to rebuild any confidence. We are therefore happy to have regained the trust of 27 percent of the population, in spite of the pressure exerted by the government. More and more Georgians see us as an organization made up of honest people who are trying to help to raise and solve problems and to help ordinary people secure respect for their individual or collective rights.
Georgia is one of the few countries in the world with no labor inspectorate. What are the consequences?
The government deemed that the labor inspectorate was corrupt and was no longer able to fulfil its obligations. Rather than improve it, it decided to abolish it with the coming into force of the new labor law in 2006. The decision holds dire implications for health and safety at work. Fatal work-related accidents have risen by 150 percent between 2006 and now. And yet there were more factories in operation in 2006. It is quite clear that this government has no interest in work regulations, that it is only serving the interest of the oligarchs.
On January 22, 2011, an explosion in a coal mine in Tkibuli cost one miner his life and seriously injured several others. A concentration of methane gas in excess of 6 percent had been notified, but the management forced the miners to go back down the mine. Has the situation improved?
A three-day strike was held in February 2011. As all the operations were brought to a standstill, the employer was forced to negotiate. An agreement was signed, the union was recognized, and the workers received a pay increase, more suitable working clothes, better health and safety regulations, workers’ transport, showers, etc. Health and safety issues are now being discussed within the framework of social dialogue, and the management can no longer force workers to go down the mine if there is any specific danger. The same applies to the other mine in Georgia.
Are you calling for economic sanctions, for the withdrawal of GSP+ to press the Georgian government to review its labor law?
We are calling for the holding of an inquiry into the Georgian government’s respect for all its obligations within the framework of GSP+. We are not trying to secure the withdrawal of Georgia’s GSP+ benefits but guarantees and respect for the rights of its citizens and particularly its workers. We are therefore hoping for an inquiry, and if no changes are brought to the labor law over the short term, that suitable sanctions be applied.
A European Commission report concerning the implementation in 2007 of the European Neighbourhood Policy had already warned the Georgian government that it should revise its labor law if it wanted to continue to benefit in 2009 from GSP+ trade benefits.
Unlike trade unionists, politicians often lie!
Do you ever receive threats?
All trade union leaders receive threats, we have to get used to it. We face discrimination, threats of prison, and warnings of the kind "you’re going to come to a bad end." They come from "well-meaning advisors," intermediaries who pass on the message from people from the government. They find reasons for arresting and jailing you. There are so many people with no links to drugs, prostitution, or corruption who nonetheless find themselves in prison on such charges. The context is one of intimidation and blackmail, there is repression against me and the members of my union; the security forces listen in to our conversations, track our movements, etc.
What motivates you to continue in such a context?
One source of energy is my friends who look to me to defend their rights, the workers who take part in our actions and the support we receive at international level. But my biggest driver is my love of my country. I am convinced that Georgia needs the work I am doing. In a country exposed to external threats, if civil society does not take a key part in the decision making, if a very prominent person, a president dictates his choices to everyone else, there is a major risk that the country could lose its sovereignty. And yet the trade union movement is the locomotive, the brains of civil society.
Interview by Samuel Grumiau. Cross-posted from ITUC Online, October 18, 2011
Georgian Unions Beat Back Legal Attack on Worker Rights. August 3, 2011—In Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government has launched an array of anti-union legal maneuvers that are choking off the country’s newly independent trade union organizations.
Georgia: Europe’s Black Sheep for Workers’ Rights. May 5, 2011—Georgia is rapidly becoming the black sheep of worker rights in Europe, reports the International Trade Union Confederation. The workers are being pressed to work in unhealthy and dangerous environments, trade union activists are being dismissed, and trade union leaders are being harassed and threatened. The whole existence of independent trade union organizations is put at risk.
Spotlight Interview with Maia Kobakhidze (ESFTUG-Georgia, the national teacher and scientists Union). June 6, 2011—“How to protect our members when we are fighting for the existence of the organization!"
Spotlight Interview with Hamlet Lomidze (Railway Workers Union – Georgia). June 6, 2011—“There are a lot of hazardous and unsafe working conditions, and the traumatic cases have increased the last years.”