Georgia’s new workplace safety and health law is a step forward but does not include sufficient enforcement mechanisms and only covers workers in a few industries, according to the Georgia Trade Union Confederation (GTUC).
“What Georgia’s workers desperately need are laws to force employers to take their safety seriously, and hold them criminally responsible when they do not,” says GTUC Vice President Raisa Liparteliani. For the current labor laws to have any effect, “we first need an inspection department with the clout to back them up,” she says.
Some 455 workers died and 793 were injured on the job between 2007 and 2017, according to the GTUC, using data from the Georgia Ministry of Internal Affairs. Already this year, 12 workers have died. These figures do not include workers who have died or were injured because of occupational illnesses like black lung disease, a common and often fatal workplace hazard for miners, or other on-the-job injuries that manifest after the immediate incident. Also, according to the GTUC, some industrial accidents are not reported in part because employers threaten or blackmail workers into remaining silent.
The law, in effect March 21, covers only workers in high risk, hazardous and dangerous work, and stipulates that workplaces may be inspected only at the invitation of the owner, who must be given at least five days notice.
“The law does not provide regulations that create an efficient, fully fledged labor inspection system in compliance with the International Labor Organization (ILO) convention on labor inspection (Convention 81), in which inspectors have unlimited, free access to all public and private workplaces without the permission of employers or other officials,” according to the GTUC.
Restoring Labor Rights
Under a previous government, Georgia’s labor laws in 2006 were replaced with a labor code focused on the rights of employers. A new government in 2015 created a labor inspection department in line to meet the requirements of an Association Agreement with the European Union. Yet since then, says Liparteliani, the number of people dying and being injured in the workplace has instead increased.
A major shortcoming of the new labor inspection department is that it says “nothing of other areas of labor rights,” she says.
“Labor rights are inseparable from safety issues; a vast majority of workplace accidents occur due to physical fatigue, which is understandable when workers can’t take holidays, can’t take days off when they’re ill, and are forced to work extra hours.”
As it works to establish a labor inspection system in compliance with ILO standards, the GTUC plans to bring the issue to the Tripartite Social Partnership Commission that oversees the European Union-Georgia Association Agreement.
Workers at the Zestafoni Ferroalloy factory in Georgia’s Imereti region successfully negotiated a contract after five months of negotiations with their employer that includes wide-ranging workplace safety and health improvements, wage increases and social benefits.
The three-year pact finalized earlier this month at the country’s largest silicomanganese processing plant establishes 40 hours as the standard work week, provides employees with health coverage, boosts pay for overtime and dozens more provisions.
Tamaz Dolaberidze, president of the Metal, Miner, and Chemical Workers’ National Trade Union (MMCWTUG) which represents the workers, says the contract is the first collective agreement based on the principles of social dialogue and social partnership at Zestafoni. The pact also includes language to ensure commitments are implemented and maintained.
Previous contract agreements, including one reached in 2010 and the other in 2013, were settled only after difficult strikes.
Earlier this year, MMCWTUG and the Georgian Trade Unions Confederation (GTUC) assisted 750 Georgia coal miners in Tkibuli and 170 glass factory workers in Ksani in making big gains at the workplace after long strikes by workers at both sites.
In Georgia, coal miners in Tkibuli and glass factory workers in Ksani recently made big gains at the workplace with the assistance of the Metal Workers, Miners and Chemical Industry Workers’ Trade Union (MMCIWTU) and the Georgian Trade Unions Confederation (GTUC).
Despite tough opposition from their employers, both groups of workers waged successful strikes and won significant wage increases, with miners also gaining key job safety and health improvements.
Miners in Georgia won key contract demands, including a wage increase and improved job safety and health. Credit: MMCIWTU
Some 750 miners went on strike in February, seeking wage increases promised during their last strike in 2011. The workers, employed by the Georgian Industrial Group (GIG), which operates two mines in Tkibuli, walked out before notifying union leadership of their intention.
But with GTUC President Irakli Petriashvili and MMCIWTU President Tamazi Dolaberidze at the bargaining table, miners returned to work in 16 days with a new contract that includes a 7 percent pay increase starting March 1 and an additional 3 percent hike beginning April 1—and will be paid for half of the days they spent on the strike with no punishment for strike leaders. The company also has agreed to address salary imbalances.
GIG supplies coal from Tkibuli primarily to cement-producing factories in Georgia and is one of the country’s largest corporations, with operations in energy generation, natural gas and real estate.
JSC Mina factory workers received wide international support for their strike. Credit: MMCIWTU
At the JSC “Mina” glass container factory, 170 workers—80 percent of the workforce—went on strike February 5 after months of contract negotiations which stalled when the company did not address workers’ key issues, including a wage increase.
Throughout the 30-day strike, glass workers won wide international support, with employees of the JSC Mina Turkey-based parent company, Sisecam, holding a solidarity action backing striking workers. The Sisecam workers also sent their Georgian brothers and sisters a message: “Workers of “Mina” are symbol of fight for just cause, wherever human rights are violated we should be there and fight together!”
The global union federation IndustriALL, the Eurasian Metal Workers Federation, the Turkish union DISK and unions in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan sent protest letters to the company and support letters to the glass workers. GTUC affiliate organizations and non-governmental organizations also backed the workers.
Petriashvili and Dolaberidze ultimately negotiated a 7.5 percent pay increase beginning January 1, 2017, and the company agreed to the workers’ demand for a location to hold union activities.