Conflict & Justice

Kazakhstan labor dissent worries government


Miners in Kazakhstan want higher wages and continue to threaten labor strikes. The government, an important US ally, has urged companies to settle the disputes peacefully.



Last month, 200 Kazakh workers staged a three-day sit-in at the bottom of the Annensky copper mine demanding higher wages from copper giant Kazakhmys. What started with 80 workers soon grew as workers from two other mines descended in solidarity. They all emerged safely after promises of pay raises. 

"Our wages are too small for the three or four mouths that we have to feed," one anonymous miner said to Reuters. 

In December of last year, police opened fire on labor protesters angling for higher pay in the town of Zhanaozen, a large oil production center. At least 14 people were killed and more than 100 injured. The riots came to a head after a seven month conflict over what workers maintain was the illegal firing of 2,000 oil workers.

The BBC reports that the government has convicted and jailed 13 people in a "makeshift courtroom" for their role in the strikes earlier this month.

After the riots in Zhanaozen, miners across the country are asking for more, and while for the most part the bosses have acquiesced, disputes continue across the Karaganda province, home of some of the larger copper and steel production facilities. 

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As Reuters reports, the question on workers' lips is, "If nothing changes, how can they answer the question: why won't another Zhanaozen bubble up?"

Kazakhstan is Central Asia's largest economy and has been a relatively stable democracy since its founding in 1991. President Nazarbayev, a former steel worker, has been in power since the nation's independence, and according to the State Department, "American companies have invested about $14.3 billion in Kazakhstan since 1993," mostly to the energy sector. The country is the US' largest ally in the region, and is a signatory to numerous treaties and agreements with the US and NATO. Kazakhstan has also recieved US aid to the tune of roughly $1.2 billion since the 1990s.

Although generally peaceful, the former Soviet state faces a shift in attitudes about economic disparity. While the heads of some of the world's largest companies continue to live large in Western Europe, their workers make an average of $775 a month, which is slightly above the national average. 

"Now, these bosses have billions and I have my pension of $150 a month," said Pavel Shumkin, an activist and former coal miner. "They breathe a different air."

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ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel maker, faces these problems. Workers in the surrounding town of Temirtau demanded a wage increase, as well as an inflation bump at 7.4 percent in May, and they got a compromise they could live with — because the company doesn't want any trouble, the likes of which have been seen not just in Zhanaozen, but in other towns as well. 

The Nazarbayev administration is spooked by the ongoing frustrations of the workers, and has encouraged the companies involved to bend to any demands put forth. 

According to Reuters, Vijay Mahadevan, CEO of ArcelorMittal Temirtau, said "the government had advised the company to resolve its labor issues peacefully. Talks with the steel workers' union are continuing."

"They way they are advising the company, they are also advising the unions to have continuous dialogue and come to a resolution based on negotiations rather than demonstrations," he said. "Starting a strike is easy. Ending it may not be."

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of labor around the world, check out our Special Report, "Worked Over: The Global Decline of Labor Rights."