On 17th July Erlan Baltabai, the leader of a now-closed trade union of oil workers in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, has been sentenced to 7 years in prison after being found guilty of embezzlement. Baltabai has been on trial since the end of June, accused of misappropriating $28,000 in union dues. He does not contest the amount in his account saying he was safeguarding the money after the union’s suspension in 2015, rather than the criminal implications placed against him. To an uninformed observer, this might appear to be a situation that deserves little attention; however, when Baltabai is the “fourth trade union leader in two years to be convicted or jailed” by the Kazak government, workers’ rights are clearly under threat, writes Mihra Rittman, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch,. This trend in Kazakhstan has been repeatedly addressed by the International Labour Organisation (I.L.O), the United Nations agency for labor standards and workers’ rights, who have criticized the government’s “persistent lack of progress” regarding trade union reforms and “continued interference” by authorities with independent organisations. If the Kazak government continues to act unimpeded against the freedoms of workers, then it paints a bleak picture for any future reforms.
The American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations wrote a letter to Kazak President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev demanding the “unconditional acquittal and release of Mr Baltabai.” Additionally, the International Trade Union Confederation “harshly condemned” the sentence; their General Secretary, Sharan Burrow, went onto that they are “ready to defend our fellow workers in their struggle.”
Mihra Rittman further states, “no one should be jailed for defending workers’ rights.” If the democratic process is to succeed, then those that champion equal rights and representation should not be silenced so blatantly. International condemnation by the UN and international organisations are the stepping-stone to greater accountability from the Kazak government and the authorities. However, international condemnation can only get so far. Baltabai previously spoke, in 2017, about the repression of independent trade unions at the International Labor Conference in Geneva, but is now facing a lengthy prison sentence. Clearly, the citizens of Kazakhstan need an accessible platform to voice their concerns without any fear of government retaliation.
Kazakhstan has only recently seen the succession of a new President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who came into power in March 2019 after the resignation of the longstanding president Nursultan Nazarbayev. It was Nazarbayev who began cracking down on trade unions after protests in Zhanaozen 8 years ago led to violent clashes between workers and police, that killed at least 16 people. Since then, many have noticed an exponential increase of repressive actions against workers and unions, seemingly justified by the possibility of dissent. Therefore, many were hoping for positive actions regarding worker’s rights, and civil rights in general, with a newly elected president; unfortunately, neither appear to be improving at a consistent rate leaving many citizens disillusioned toward the regime.
Nazarbayev still holds great influence in the Kazak government, for instance, he is the head of the Security Council for life and many understand Tokayev to be his “hand-picked successor,” reports Abdujalil Abdurasulov of the BBC. Nazarbayev’s ideals and political strategies will more than likely persist in Kazakhstan; however, the recent elections signal some hope for those that are underrepresented in Kazak society, but it will take time. The guidelines laid out in the I.L.O’s report, to improve the establishment of trade unions and the autonomy of those within them, are only useful if there are sufficient will and resources to implement them. The people of Kazakhstan and international organisations need to rally together to drive political change in Kazakhstan so that these injustices are not allowed to continue.
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