Kazakhstan wrestles with striking oil workers

The strikes are unlikely to pose a threat to the government but are a rare event in a country where the authorities show little tolerance of dissent

AN unusual wave of strikes has swept energy-rich southwestern Kazakhstan where thousands of oil industry workers have been demanding higher wages for almost a month. Workers and their families in the southwestern Mangistau region on the shores of the oil-rich Caspian Sea sometimes resorted to extreme measures – cutting their own stomachs, blocking roads, going on hunger strikes – to be heard by their employers.

The strikes – the longest of which has already lasted for more than 40 days – are unlikely to pose a threat to the government but are a rare event in a country where the authorities show little tolerance of dissent. “For now, the authorities chose tough measures to deal with the strikers. I don’t think this situation will grow into a social conflict, but it remains very tense,” political scientist Eduard Poletayev told.

Kazakhstan has been ruled since even before independence by Nursultan Nazarbayev who has turned his country into the most stable and prosperous state in Central Asia but has also been criticised for clamping down on human rights. Images of police dispersing striking workers outside the city administration building in Aktau were broadcast on the Kyrgyzstan-based K-Plus TV channel.

A city court found guilty Nataliya Sokolova, who provided workers with legal assistance, in “organising an unsanctioned mass gathering” in front of police headquarters in the port city of Aktau. She was later charged with “inciting social hatred” which could send her to jail for up to seven years.

More than 100 workers at Ersai Caspian Contractor, a Kazakh-Italian joint venture serving the oil industry, have been on strike since May 11. At its peak, the number of protesters reached 350 people, said the company’s spokesman Adilet Adam. “I was put into such a situation that I will stand until the end,” said Vladislav Prokofiyev, a constructor at the Ersai. “You may be kicked once, twice, three times, but at some point, it has to end. There must be some kind of justice,” he told K-Plus TV channel.

Ersai, which produces pipe racks for the lucrative Kashagan oil field project, is owned by ERC Holdings of Kazakhstan and Italy’s oil and gas industry contractor Saipem. “How Astana will respond to these is a significant question,” said John Daly, a Central Asia labour expert at Central Asia – Caucasus Institute in Washington. “It would seem likely that the Kazakh leadership is attempting first to accurately assess the current situation and second, to determine what minimal concessions might be offered to defuse it,” he said.

On May 16, several hundred workers at Karazhanbasmunai Sino-Kazakh joint venture in Aktau went on strike, demanding a wage increase and the lifting of restrictions on the activities of independent trade unions in the region.

Two workers publicly slashed their stomachs and four workers on hunger strike have been hospitalised, according to footage broadcast on the K-Plus TV channel. Many workers resent higher wages of educated outsiders – be it workers from another country or management from another region in Kazakhstan.

“The resentment against better-paid foreign workers is not new, but clearly, this is on a different scale than previously,” Svante Cornell, research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, told. “I hardly believe it will grow a movement that could form a serious threat to the government. It is a challenge that it (the government) will need to find a way to respond to sooner or later,” he said.

Six hundred out of 9,000 workers at the Kazakhstan’s London-listed oil and gas firm KazMunaiGas Exploration Production’s Uzenmunaigas facility went on strike on May 26, demanding a new system of payment be introduced. The management at Uzenmunaigas said the strike was illegal. The company has fired 200 workers for failure to turn up to work, said Mikhail Dorofeyev, a spokesman for the KazMunaiGas Exploration Production.

“The company believes that the demands of protesters are unfounded,” KazMunaiGas Exploration Production said in a statement. It said it had begun, in accordance with the labour code, dismissing striking workers, but added it wants to settle disagreements once everyone returned to work.

In March 2010, a 19-day strike at KazMunaiGas Exploration Production ended in an agreement between workers and employers. “As a national company we have to meet demands set to us by the stockholder, which is to receive the maximum profit, thus paying more taxes and other payment into the budget,” the chairman of the board of the state-owned KazMunaiGas, Kairgeldy Kabyldin said. afp

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