Big oil versus Kazakh workers

In May 2011, thousands of workers in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas industries struck against low pay and bosses’ interference in trade union affairs. A government-backed campaign of strike-breaking, blacklisting and repression ended in the murder by the police of more than a dozen workers in December 2011. A recent Human Rights Watch report, Striking Oil, Striking Workers: Violations of Labor Rights in Kazakhstan’s Oil Sector, based on interviews with oil workers and their supporters, lays bare the shocking details of this story.

Kazakhstan, the largest country in Central Asia, has, since the fall of Stalinism, systematically exploited its considerable reserves of oil and gas and integrated into the world-economy through co-operation with multi-national capital and foreign state-owned companies.

Although nominally a parliamentary republic, Kazakhstan has been governed continuously by President Nursultan Nazarbayev since independence from the Soviet Union. Nazarbayev was re-elected in April 2011 with an improbable 95.54% of the vote. He has made the transition from Communist Party bureaucrat to neoliberal oligarch with ease. According to one United Nations report, he is estimated to have transferred $1 billion of oil wealth into his own private bank accounts, and his family controls many important businesses in Kazakhstan.

Oil is by far the largest source of government revenue and in 2010 it represented approximately 11.5% of the country’s GDP. By producing an average of 1.6 million barrels of oil a day, Kazakhstan is now within the top 20 oil producers in the world and has potential to become one of the top five if it fully develops its three major oil fields.

By marketing itself as a stable and reliable place to invest, Kazakhstan has achieved a high level of economic growth, fuelled by considerable foreign direct investment (FDI) from the EU, the US, Russia and China.

Following a wave of strikes in the mining sector in the late 1980s an independent labour movement developed in Kazakhstan. By 1991, the Independent Trade Union Centre of Kazakhstan, now known as the Confederation of Free Unions of Kazakhstan (KSPK), was formed.

At the same time the old Soviet All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions was transformed into the Federation of Trade Unions of the Republic of Kazakhstan (FPRK) and has retained close links with the government. It is still the largest trade union confederation in the country, but its membership has declined from around seven million in 1990 to two million today.

The KSPK too, is far from adequate. Its president, Sergei Belkin, elected in 2003, has been accused of keeping insufficient distance from the state. The report notes how “in February 2009, the KSPK, along with various pro-government political parties, including the president’s Nur Otan party, signed a memorandum in which they agreed ‘to cooperate during the global economic crisis’ and lent the union’s support to a moratorium on organising and holding rallies, marches, pickets, and protests.”

Given these inadequacies many workers have taken to self-organisation; industrial disputes often take the form of wildcat actions, two-to-three-hour warning strikes or hunger strikes. Since May 2009, repeated unsuccessful attempts have been made by trade union and workers’ organisations to obtain government recognition for a new national cross-industry union, Zhanartu.

The report focuses on the strikes at three companies in particular: Ersai Caspian Contractor LLC, KarazhanbasMunai JSC, and OzenMunaiGas.

Ersai is a joint venture between a subsidiary of Lancaster Group Kazakhstan, a huge holding company formed by oil magnate and Kazakh Minister for Environmental Protection Nurlan Kapparov, and the Italian company Saipem International BV.

In March 2011, an independent trade union, Karakiya, submitted a list of grievances to management at an Ersai service yard in the small town of Kuryk in western Kazakhstan after the company placed restrictions on a union leader’s access to company territory. The workers also demanded higher wages. Union members who signed the demands were harassed by Ersai’s personnel and security departments and threatened with dismissal unless they denied participation in the meeting which drew up the demands.

In mid-May, after failed attempts to negotiate with Ersai management, workers supporting Karakiya’s demands went on strike. “A local court found the strike at Ersai Caspian Contractor illegal on grounds that strikes are prohibited at ‘hazardous production facilities,’”; the company attempted to break the strike by closing access to the yard, forcing workers who resided there on shift to sleep outside and go without access to showers and toilet facilities. In June, the court temporarily arrested five members of the strike committee and suspended Karakiya for six months for holding an “illegal” strike.

KarazhanbasMunai JSC is jointly owned by China’s state-owned CITIC Group and the KazMunai Gas Exploration and Production Company, itself controlled by Kazakhstan’s state oil and gas company.

In January 2011, the established procedures between management and the Karazhanbas union broke when one of the union’s lawyers, an independent labour activist, was excluded from the arbitration structures considering the workers’ demands for higher wages.

A week later, union activists were beaten up by a group of men in an attempt to intimidate the workers from participation in trade union activities. Losing faith in the chairperson of Karazhanbas to represent them, the workers called a general assembly and elected a new representative. Management denied them the use of the assembly hall for their meeting, again prevented the union lawyer from meeting with members at the oil field, and refused to recognise the newly-elected chairperson.

This prompted a partial hunger-strike in early May, followed quickly by strike action. The reaction from management was heavy-handed.

One worker told HRW: “The prosecutor was there, all of the [company] management was there, the police, and [KarazhanbasMunai] security was there, with their truncheons…. [the police] came out there with automatic weapons and pistols. We had a peaceful strike... and they came out with automatic weapons. We’re not [criminals], not bandits.”

The workers were fined and, in a highly dubious trial, Karazhanbas union lawyer Natalia Sokolova was put up on criminal charges of “‘inciting social discord’ for speaking to workers about wage disparity”. She was sentenced to six years in prison, though later released.

The third company involved in suppressing labour disputes was OzenMunaiGas, another subsidiary of KazMunai Gas Exploration Production Company, in the remote western town of Zhanaozen.

In May 2011 around two dozen workers staged a hunger strike over declining wages, after being told by management that their demands were “unfounded and illegitimate”.

Then several thousand workers downed tools on 26 May. While around 7,800 of the 9,000 workers at the plant are part of the company union, this strike took place outside of its structures. Local courts ruled the strike to be illegal. The hunger-strikers were fined and one worker, Akzhanat Aminov, was given a one year suspended sentence for allegedly organising the strike by phone.

In early July, the police violently dispersed those on strike and detained many of those on hunger strike.

One worker, Kanat K., told how at “around 4 am, I was sleeping in the car, a hatchback. My legs were [hanging out over] the bumper. And then, suddenly, there was lots of noise. I opened my eyes and the OMON [riot police] were beating me with night sticks... Then [they] sat on me, twisted my arms, and loaded me into the bus... We sat down [on the bus], and didn’t raise our heads.”

Many other workers reported how, during the strike, they and their relatives “experienced various acts of violence, threats, and harassment”, including detention and shot-term administrative arrests on spurious grounds.

On 16 December 16, Kazakhstan’s Independence Day, clashes broke out in Zhanaozen’s central square between the police and protesters, including striking oil workers and members of opposition groups, when the security forces attempted to clear the square to make way for celebrations.

One of the oil workers describes what happened next: “About an hour [after the clashes started], about 50 or 60 police [appeared] … I saw that they’re shooting. I thought they were blanks, or … rubber bullets.… But no, I saw that they’re not blanks, not rubber bullets, but live cartridges. I looked around and a guy had been hit in the leg. He screamed. There was a man near him, an older man who was disabled. They grabbed him and hit him with truncheons [dubinki]. Before my eyes, they shot a guy. He died…. They shot at passersby.”

Local police and government forces killed at least a dozen and wounded scores more. Other estimates from civil society groups and individuals put the toll of those murdered and injured much higher.

The next day, the authorities imposed a state of emergency in Zhanaozen, cutting off telecommunications and several websites, including Twitter, across the country for two weeks. This was followed by “arbitrary arrest, ill-treatment and torture of detainees in custody, and extortion of Zhanaozen residents by police officers”. The state of emergency was later extended to the end of January, meaning that residents of the town were unable to vote in the parliamentary elections.

Arrests continued into the new year, using the vague charge of “inciting social discord” against opposition activists and workers. In February 2012, the same charge was used against six oil workers, including leaders of the OzenMunaiGas strike. This was followed by the arrest and trial of thirty-seven activists, including eighteen oil workers, in June 2012, thirteen of whom were sentenced for up to seven years.

The government of Kazakhstan, which in 2011 hired Tony Blair to advise on policy issues, acted, in collusion with oil bosses, to contravene international standards of labour and human rights, including the rights of collective bargaining, freedom of assembly and the right to strike.

Damning, too, is the silence from Kazakhstan’s key international partners, the UK, the US, Germany, China and Russia. For capitalists and their governments, profit comes first; callous indifference to the rights and the lives of Kazakh oil workers is routine; and brutal state violence is the standby sanction for all workers who dare to fight.

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