Naubet Bisenov in Almaty -
Amendments to the Kazakh Labour Code, if adopted, will favour employers and significantly limit employees' rights and pay, unions say.
Independent trade unions have condemned the amendments as another move to encroach on workers’ rights, while pro-government unions have tried to defend them as “more or less balanced”.
Presenting the amendments in the Mazhilis (the lower chamber of the Kazakh parliament) on September 3, Minister of Health and Social Development Tamara Duysenova said that the new amendments would reduce the rate of wages paid for overtime and working on public holidays and weekends from the current overtime pay of 50-100% of the basic pay to 25%. The minister believes that lower rates of the pay rise will reduce employers’ expenses. On the other hand, it will force employers wanting their employees to work overtime and on holidays to obtain written consent of the staff.
The new amendments also entitle the employer to terminate employment contract with workers who reached the retirement age – currently at 58 for women and 63 for men. At present, this practice is applied to public-sector workers and it is now proposed to extend it to the private sector.
“These amendments favour employers but not employees,” Larisa Kharkova, chairwoman of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, tells bne IntelliNews. She believes that the new labour legislation will be detrimental to workers’ rights after the government significantly tightened legislation regulating trade unions in 2014. As a result, out of over 800 trade unions established in the country, nearly 500 independent trade unions failed to undergo the process of re-registration and there are only 200 officially-registered unions at the moment.
“Unfortunately, the trade union movement is very weak in Kazakhstan to protect workers’ rights,” Kharkova sighs, complaining that her confederation failed to obtain re-registration before the July 10 deadline.
Pro-government trade unions don’t agree with Kharkova’s take on the amendments and say that their involvement in drafting the amendments have vastly improved the amendments, which were initially proposed by the Health and Social Development Ministry.
“When we first received the draft amendments we could see imbalance towards the employers. But thanks to our efforts, we have changed a lot and they are now more or less balanced,” Gulnara Zhumageldiyeva, deputy chairman of the pro-government Federation of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, explains to bne IntelliNews.
She said that the cuts in overtime pay was the only issue that they were still going to work on with parliament.
Kharkova believes that extending the employer’s right to lay off workers nearing the retirement age to the private sector “should in no way be allowed” because it is hard for elderly workers, especially, women to find new employment at that age. Zhumageldiyeva, in contrast, believes that this amendment would open employment opportunities for youth. “We should not forget about young people,” she noted.
The new bill also proposed to obligate employers to notify the State Labour Office of any labour dispute emerging between employers and employees. This should allow the government to control and monitor the whole process from the moment the dispute arises. This is an effect of the events in Zhanaozen in 2011, when the oil workers’ strike ended in bloody riots with at least 14 protesters killed. Since then, the government has been extremely sensitive to emerging labour disputes.
Kharkova, while rejecting the notion that oil workers were somehow to blame for the riot, said that the new legislation on trade unions had significantly curbed trade unions’ powers to air their grievances.
The new Labour Code will also ease the redeployment of staff. In particular, it proposes to set a period of temporary redeployment equal to the entire period the enterprise suspends operations. The employer is to be granted the right to transfer an employee to any available job, not a similar job as stipulated in the current legislation.
According to the draft amendments, layoffs are possible upon the closure of the company’s unit, a decline in production and a lack of other employment options, and the employer will need to give a one-month's notice to a trade union, listing reasons for terminating workers’ employment contracts. The bill provides for a two-month salary rule for compensation instead of one-month compensation policy that is currently in effect.
At the same time, the draft amendments allow the employer to change working conditions, i.e. by introducing flexible working hours or part-time work.
Generally, the new Labour Code will liberalise labour relations, despite giving greater powers to workers to seek protection of their rights via collective agreements. However, this is a problem, representatives of trade unions admit, because only 30% of Kazakhstan’s employees are members of trade unions.
The new amendments are the government’s reaction to the deteriorating economic conditions in Kazakhstan. By adopting the new labour legislation the government may think it is helping strengthen workers’ rights, but actually the government is protecting the rights of employers, Kharkova believes. “In essence, these amendments are not increasing the rights of employers, but they are decreasing workers’ rights,” she concluded.
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