Third Coordination Meeting International Labour Rights Monitoring Mission for Central Asia
Bishkek, November 14—16, 2019
Democracy, social justice, and peace: Prospects for Central Asian countries
The participants of the Third Coordination Meeting of the International Labour Rights Monitoring Mission for Central Asia convened in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) on November 14 through 16, 2019, representing independent trade union and human rights organisations of Belarus, France, Germany, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, the USA, and Uzbekistan, exchanged opinions and information concerning the developments in the region in 2019 and pointed out the persistently grave situation in the Central Asian countries in terms of respect for the labour rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the core Conventions of the International Labour Organisation, along with the widely spread use of forced and child labour in the region, discrimination, particularly, against women and migrant workers, and restrictions imposed on the activities of independent trade unions and efforts to defend labour rights.
The wave of repressions against independent union activists in Kazakhstan continues, taking the form of legislative restrictions on trade union activities, interference of the authorities in the unions’ internal affairs, administrative and criminal prosecution of trade union leaders and activists, and the dissolution of independent trade unions. The ILO Recommendations to amend the national Law On Trade Unions have not been implemented as the amendments introduced are of a purely cosmetic nature and do not change the repressive and restrictive model of labour relations which has evolved from this Law and the law-enforcement practices in Kazakhstan. A particular role in sustaining this model of labour relations is played by the State-controlled trade unions.
In July 2019, the leader of the Independent Fuel-and-Energy Workers’ Union of Kazakhstan Erlan Baltabai was sentenced to seven years in prison as a result of a politically motivated case against him. Following an international solidarity campaign, Erlan Baltabai received Presidential pardon and was released as early as August 2019. However, in October 2019 he was arrested again and sentenced to another five months behind bars, which generated numerous protests of the international community.
A worrying situation is emerging in Kyrgyzstan, where, despite a massive public campaign and protests from trade unions, workers and human rights defenders, the Parliament, after two readings, supported by a majority vote the draft Law On Trade Unions. The draft Law creates conditions for the monopolisation of the trade union space in the country, seriously undermining workers’ right to freedom of association and the possibility of independent trade union activities in the country and facilitating the authorities’ interference in trade union activities. The draft Law has an anti-worker and anti-union nature and contravenes the core international labour standards.
In Tajikistan we observe suppressed activity of trade unions as organisations which are independent in their work from the State authorities and the employers and capable of freely organising workers and freely representing them to defend their interests. The excessively complex registration procedure that trade unions and non-profit organisations have to go through and the restrictive procedure for holding public actions can be quoted as problems related to the national legislation and law-enforcement practices.
The political regime in Turkmenistan whose characteristic features include extreme authoritarianism, excessive closedness to the outer world, and the total control over domestic life rules out any possibility for independent trade unions, human rights organisations, and mass media to take root in the country. While welcoming the release of the human rights defender Gaspar Matalayev from prison, we should bear in mind that he had served the full term of his sentence for publishing evidence of the use of forced labour in cotton harvesting. At the same time, the use of forced labour when workers from different sectors are made to pick cotton during the harvesting season remains a common and systemic phenomenon.
There are some positive dynamics with relation to the use of forced labour in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan. Child labour is being eradicated in this sector as a systemic phenomenon, yet it is still used in agriculture and other sectors, mainly, as a result of the distressful situation of people, predominantly in the rural areas. Forced adult labour still persists in cotton and silk growing where there is a public contract for the produce. The State systematically makes civil servants to do unpaid work as the so-called “socially beneficial service”. In such cases, the forced labour assumes a less evident form when the workers are forced to sign a piece of paper stating their “voluntary consent to be involved in cotton-picking”. Another problem is the absence of independent worker organisations in the country. The existing trade unions are not independent from the State, and NGOs face rejections of their registration applications and find themselves under constant pressure.
The participants of the Third Coordination Meeting of the International Labour Rights Monitoring Mission for Central Asia call upon:
— the President and the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan to:
1. Immediately release Erlan Baltabai, drop all criminal charges against him, repeal all sentences passed against Erlan Baltabai, Larisa Kharkova, Amin Eleusinov, and Nurbek Kushakbayev, and lift all restrictions to engage in trade union activities imposed on them.
2. Cancel the decisions to dissolve the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK) and the KNPRK affiliates, namely, the Fuel-and-Energy Workers’ Union, the Social and Domestic Workers’ Union “Spravedlivost’”, and the Healthcare and Social Development Workers’ Union.
3. Review the cases of and fully rehabilitate Rosa Tuletayeva, Maksat Dosmagambetov (posthumously) and other activists of the peaceful strike action in Zhanaozen in 2011.
4. Carry out an in-depth examination of all filed complaints concerning the use of torture against all persons who were under investigation in the Zhanaozen case and punish all those who did the torturing, as well as those who ordered the use of firearms and took part in the shooting of peaceful civilians in Zhanaozen.
5. Review without prejudice the criminal case against Erzhan Elshimbayev, a worker activist and an organiser of the Movement of the Unemployed, who was arrested in connection with his social activities.
6. Implement the ILO Recommendations concerning the amendment of the Law On Trade Unions, introduce meaningful, substantive amendments into the legislation that regulates the area of labour relations, and make free and open operation of independent trade unions possible in the country.
7. Bring the criminal and administrative legislation used to prosecute people for freedom of expression, freedom of association, trade union activities, and freedom of peaceful assembly in line with international standards.
— the President and the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic to:
1. Give up any attempts to interfere with the activities of the Trade Unions Federation of Kyrgyzstan and ensure enabling conditions for the activities of civil society organisations, in particular, the human rights movement “Bir Duino”.
2. Withdraw the Draft Law On Trade Unions or use the Presidential veto in case of its adoption.
— the President and the Government of the Republic of Tajikistan to:
1. Simplify and rationalize the registration procedure for trade unions, non-governmental and non-profit organisations, abandon the practice of passing duplicating laws that make the process even more complicated and difficult to complete. Give up the practice of registering such associations within a single region only, thus, complicating the possible expansion of their activities beyond the region where they have been registered initially.
2. Review the legislation regulating the holding of public actions and events, bringing it in line with the international standards related to the exercise of freedom of assembly, and simplify the procedure for holding public actions.
3. Develop an implementation mechanism with the view of transposing provisions of the core ILO Conventions concerning the freedom of association into the national legislation.
— the President of Turkmenistan to:
Reform the current political system, ensure access of independent mass media and human rights organisations to the country, and rehabilitate the repressed civil activists.
— the President and the Government of the Republic of Uzbekistan to:
1. Implement reforms in agriculture in order to guarantee economic freedom to farmers, particularly, in terms of land use, independent determination of the crops they cultivate, and price-setting for the products they grow and produce.
2. Introduce a simplified procedure for the registration of non-governmental associations and non-profit organisations. Guarantee the right of citizens to create and join trade unions of their choice.
3. Lift all administrative sanctions and criminal punishments imposed on the participants, both male and female, of the labour relations monitoring efforts in cotton growing and representatives of the human rights defenders’ community Elena Urlayeva (adjudged as incapable), Dmitry Tikhonov, Malokhat Eshankulova, Nafosat Ollashukurova, Makhmud Rajabov, Davlatnazar Ruzmetov (posthumously). Guarantee freedom and safety to the returning civil activists who were forced to leave the country in the past.
4. Initiate independent and thorough investigations of reports of the use of forced labour. Initiate fair trials in line with international standards of those [state] officials who coerce or incite others to coerce citizens to pick cotton or do other “socially beneficial work”. Impose sanctions, proportionate to the gravity of the committed offence, upon those who are found guilty.
The participants of the Third Coordination meeting of the Mission, looking at the situation in the area of labour relations in the region of Central Asia,
express their intention to:
1) continue the gathering and processing of information on the situation of workers in Central Asia, coordinate activities to defend the rights of worker and union activists, promote exchange of experiences and interaction among them;
2) defend the principle of independence of the trade union movement as the only possible way to ensure workers’ participation in democratic labour relations and social and economic processes;
3) support workers’ initiatives to create their own organisations, e.g. labour migrants’ organisations and associations of women employed in informal economy.
and call upon:
1) the Governments of all Central Asian countries to carry out an evaluation of the implementation of their commitments to observe the core ILO Conventions, involving representatives of the civil society and independent trade unions in this process;
2) the UN and the international organisations within its structure to provide support to the Governments of Central Asian countries, making sure that they observe international standards and fulfill their commitments under the Conventions they have ratified;
3) the European Union and its member-states to build international cooperation, also in the area of trade and investment, with the Central Asian countries, taking into account information on the observance of labour rights in these countries;
4) the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Global Union Federations, and other international organisations with an impact on labour relations to promote the holding of a Forum on Freedom of Association under the auspices of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Central Asia, and provide support to the continued development of the Labour Rights Monitoring Mission and its participating organisations;
5) the community of human rights defenders in the countries of Central Asia to promote the creation of independent organisations of workers who seek to collectively defend their rights and interests, defend repressed union activists, participate in the activities of the Labour Rights Monitoring Mission (www.LabourCentralAsia.org), and support the Mission in running international solidarity campaigns.