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A worker walks past oil tanks in southern Kazakhstan.
© 2016 Reuters
Kazakhstan has taken an important step toward improving trade union rights – a major area of human rights concern in the country.
Last month Kazakhstan’s labor minister, Birzhan Nurymbetov, briefed Human Rights Watch on legal changes, adopted in May, that improve the regulatory framework for trade union organizing.
The improvements consist of amendments to the 2014 Trade Union Law. Previously, many trade unions had been unable to register or were shuttered by court order due to burdensome registration requirements. In addition, a handful of outspoken trade union leaders were criminally prosecuted and jailed in retaliation for union activities.
After being repeatedly singled out by the International Labour Organization (ILO) for violations, the Kazakh government agreed in 2017 to a high-level ILO monitoring mission. During the ILO visit, in May 2018, the government consented to passing concrete amendments to the trade union law.
The most notable change is the removal of a requirement that local and industrial tier trade unions must affiliate with a higher tier trade union body or risk losing their right to legally carry out any activities, a violation of the right of trade unions to freely determine their structure.
Other positive changes include simplified registration requirements and an extension from 6 to 12 months to complete registration procedures. The amendments make it clear in law that trade unions in Kazakhstan have the right to join international trade union organizations, and to jointly organize events and projects with them.
For many years, Human Rights Watch has advocated for such improvements. Our 2016 report “We are Not the Enemy”: Violations of Workers Rights in Kazakhstan details violations of the rights of trade unions and worker activists. Along with trade union activists in Kazakhstan and international trade union bodies, we have long urged ILO members at the International Labour Conference in Geneva to press Kazakhstan to restore freedom of association rights. We also provided input to the United States Trade Representative and pressed the European Commission and the European Parliament to prioritize respect for labor rights in their engagement with Kazakhstan.
Human Rights Watch will continue to call on the government to register trade unions that the authorities previously shuttered and end harassment of trade union activists. We are committed to pushing the Kazakh government to uphold freedom of association for trade unions.