Kazakhstan: Authorities Crack Down on Striking Oil Workers

[Editor’s note: the following press release has been lightly edited to make it more readable.]

13 July 2011

Kazakhstan: authorities engage in violent reprisals against striking oil workers

In Kazakhstan’s Mangistau province, a real threat has emerged to the security and safety of thousands of oil workers participating in a collective action – a strike – which they started on 11 May 2011. Taking part in the strike are oil workers at OzenMunayGaz, Karazhanbasmunay, and Ersay Caspian Contractor (the latter is part of the Italian holding ENI). The workers are continuing a protest action of indefinite duration. The workers on strike are being joined by more and more employees of auxiliary production units and relatives. According to observers, over the past months, eight to fifteen people have taken part. During the strike, some 900 workers have been fired. We have already written about this in the press release “Kazakhstan: inactivity of the authorities pushes oil industry workers to suicide!” (14 June 2011).

This collective action was a response to the inaction of employers – the foreign owners of oil deposits and local authorities. None of these parties has reacted to workers’ demands.

The demands of the industrial action remain unchanged:

  • To allow the creation and functioning of independent trade unions and their structures including the Karakiyak trade union;
  • To revise the collective agreement so that is based on the principle of equality of parties and takes into consideration the interests and rights of the workers;
  • To raise the wages of the workers by 100%, as the current agreement does not provide for actual minimum living standards;
  • To bring wages and other working conditions in accordance with International Labour Standards.

In recent days, alarming events are unfolding in the cities where the enterprises are located and where employees have gone on strike.

At about 16:00 on 8 July 2011, a unit of fully armed special police landed and attacked peaceful citizens in the city of Zhanaozen unexpectedly and without explanation or warnings.

Without entering into negotiations or making demands, policemen started to disperse the gathered people, beating them with clubs. They overturned woks with food prepared by relatives and tore the roof off a makeshift tent where people were sitting. According to witnesses, the police officers’ behavior was aggressive: they were doing this on purpose in order to provoke confrontation. Men and women taking part in the strike tried to stop the police officers but were severely beaten up.  About thirty people were forcibly taken to local hospitals. As of 12 July, a number of the arrested persons have managed to escape from the hospitals.

Realizing that they were outmatched, a group of sixty oil workers on hunger strike poured petrol over their bodies and announced that they were ready to burn themselves up as a sign of protest against the lawlessness and violence of the police.

Over a thousand protesting oil workers were rounded up by the police on the premises of OzenMunayGaz. A special police unit is hindering their communication with the outside world. More than 4,000 people gathered in the main square in Zhanaozen to express their solidarity with the protesting oil workers.

On 9-10 July 2011, after a violent action against the fired employees of OzenMunayGaz (now on hunger strike), a mass meeting followed in the city of Mangistau. Following the violent dispersal of hunger strike participants and sympathizing colleagues, who all this time had been gathering at OzenMunayGaz, city residents started spontaneously flowing into the square in front of the local akimat (city administration) including elderly people, women and children. A fully equipped special police unit brought there on several coaches observed the crowd from a short distance away.

According to striking workers, the reason for the mass discontent was the behavior of the special police unit, which tried to obstruct the traditional “sadaqa” ceremony at the No.5 Oil Wells Directorate No.5 (UOS-5). This was where policemen overturned woks with food and began dispersing people present at the ceremony with clubs.

On 11 July 2011, the crowds of people gathered in the square in front of the Zhanaozen administration building consisted of families including elderly people and children. At the same time, special police units with special equipment were stationed at nearby schools Nos. 9, 18, and 19. According to our information, a water cannon, eighteen firefighting trucks, three military KamAZ trucks, and four coaches with special policemen are hidden in the Kazakhstan gas processing plant (KazGPZ) and ready to start reprisals at any moment.

The unfolding situation poses a threat to the health and safety of active strike participants:

  • Since 25 May 2011, Natalya Sokolova, lawyer of the trade union at Karazhanbasmunay, has been detained under Article 164 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan for “inciting social discord.” There is no information about her condition: she is being denied access to lawyers, relatives and her husband.
  • Kuanysh Sisenbaev, leader of the trade unions of the workers at Karazhanbasmunay, has been subject to the pressure from authorities since 1 July 2011 in the city of Aktau. He is being blamed for organizing a protest march of oil workers that took place in Aktau on 5 June 2011. During the violent reprisals, several demonstrators were arrested by the police. Sisenbaev and two colleagues were driven to suicide, as a result of which they were taken to a hospital. Sisenbaev has been charged under Article 373 of the Administrative Delinquency Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan: “Violation of laws on organizing and conducting peaceful gatherings, meetings, marches, pickets and demonstrations.”
  • On 3 July, Akzhanat Aminov, a leader of the trade union at OzenMunayGaz, was arrested under Article 164 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan “for inciting social discord.” Aminov suffers from diabetes and is in constant need of medical care. Currently, he is being held in a pretrial detention facility. He is being denied medical care, meetings with relatives and a lawyer, which is a form of cruel treatment whose aim is to pressure striking workers.
  • Natalya Azhigalieva, activist of the striking OzenMunayGaz workers and a fifth-class operator at the oil-and-gas production directorate (NGDU) of OzenMunayGaz, has been fired. She was among the thirty detained oil workers who went on hunger strike and who were forcibly taken to a hospital on 8 July in Zhanaozen. On the morning of 11 July, she managed to escape from the hospital, which is under the surveillance of a special police unit. Criminal charges are being fabricated against her under Article 164 of the Kazakh Criminal Code “for inciting social discord.”

According to our observations, in breach of its international obligations, the Republic of Kazakhstan has taken the side of the employer in the industrial dispute and is using law enforcement bodies against trade union activists and striking workers, as well as engaging in violent reprisals against strikes and peaceful protests.

According to our information, during the strike the oil workers offered to start negotiations on peaceful settlement of the dispute. However, Kazakh authorities are ignoring the demands of the workers on strike despite the obligations assumed by the state.

The provisions of international agreements violated by Kazakhstan are as follows:

  • Article 19 (the right to express one’s opinion), Article 21 (freedom of peaceful assembly), Article 22 (freedom of association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;

  • Nineteen conventions of the International Labor Organization including the fundamental ones:

– Convention 81 (Labor Inspection, 1947), pursuant to which the state in the person of the state labor inspectorate shall undertake relevant measures in case the human rights at work are violated;

– Convention 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, 1948), pursuant to which the state shall allow the organization of trade unions of workers created for the protection of their lawful interests and shall recognize them;

– Convention 98 (Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949), pursuant to which employers shall conduct negotiations with workers’ representatives and the state shall be the guarantor of the consultative process;

– Convention 111 (Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958), pursuant to which it shall be prohibited to discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin, which has the effect of nullifying or impairing equality of opportunity or treatment in employment or occupation.

There is well-founded concern that striking oil workers will be driven to despair and to extreme measures inflicting harm to their health, and the authorities will bring violent reprisals against them, thus ignoring their lawful and reasonable demands.

We earnestly ask for your help in urging national human rights protection bodies to respond to this situation to the full extent.

Respectfully,

Lyudmila Kozlovska, Open Dialog Foundation
lyudmylakozlovska@odfoundation.eu

Nadejda Atayeva, Association for Human Rights in Central Asia
n.atayeva@gmail.com

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Filed under film and video, international affairs, open letters, manifestos, appeals, political repression, protests, trade unions

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