BRUSSELS --Top officials from the International Trade Union Confederation (ICTU) have slammed the government of Georgia, saying the country's labor policies made it "the black sheep of workers' rights in Europe."
The ICTU, which represents 175 million workers in 151 countries, hosted a conference in Brussels to highlight what it said was the lack of labor rights in Georgia and the harassment of labor-union officials.
Andrzej Adamczyk, the executive member of the ICTU bureau who came up with the "black sheep" moniker, told RFE/RL that the right to collective bargaining was not respected in Georgia.
He added that the Labor Code had been amended in favor of business to the detriment of labor rights and that social dialogue was nonexistent.
"All labor rights and international labor standards are being violated in Georgia," Adamczyk said. "They are violated systematically and internationally by the government."
Both the ICTU and the UN's International Labor Organization (ILO) say they will now put pressure on the Georgian government to show that it is serious about rectifying the violations of labor rights in the country.
The government in Tbilisi is currently negotiating a comprehensive free-trade agreement with the EU but it already enjoys a Generalized System of Preferences (GPS) agreement with Brussels, which ensures Georgian products preferential access to the EU market.
Noting that ILO pressure led to the suspension of a similar EU trade agreement with Belarus in 2007, Adamczyk said European labor organizations had the power to put pressure on the Georgian government, and that for Georgia "this is especially delicate because trade with Russia is practically nonexistent. So if trade with the EU collapses, the situation becomes even worse."
Maia Khobakidze, head of the Educators' and Scientists' Free Trade Union in Georgia, was present at today's conference. She said she hoped that the EU will exercise political leverage on the Georgian government to force it to respect international standards.
She said that both she and several of her union colleagues had been subjected to harassment and intimidation by government officials connected to the country's Education Ministry on several occasions in recent months.
Khobakidze said union activists are "subjected to continuing pressure from the Education Ministry, such as intimidation and blackmailing. It is not only union activists that receive threats but also their families who work for different state bodies. It is difficult to work and maintain unions but we try with the help of international organizations to overcome the difficulties and not let the Georgian government close such institutions such as labor unions."
Vakhtang Lezhava, senior adviser to Prime Minister Nika Gilauri, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service in Tbilisi that the government was open to talks with unions, but he rejected the public criticism leveled by their representatives.
"The Georgian legal system is in harmony with the international legal system, including with conventions of the International Labor Organization. Obviously, nothing is ideal and there can be some discussions about certain improvements. But this has to result from a discussion," Lezhava said.
"What we do not want to see -- something that often is a driving force behind the arguments of trade unions, both national and international -- is that changes are aimed at improving the situation of trade unions at the expense of workers."
Irakli Petriashvili, president of the Georgian labor-union confederation, told RFE/RL he believed the Georgian government, in its effort to deregulate the labor market, had come to see unions as obstacles. But rather than working against the labor unions, Petriashvili said the government should cooperate with them, to uphold Western standards.
"The Georgian government must understand that Western values must be preserved in Georgia. To follow those Western values, you need to follow them fully not only partially. It is not like having a croissant with chocolate inside it and you love chocolate, and only eat the chocolate, but throw the rest of the croissant in the garbage. You need to eat all of it together," Petriashvili said.
"Together with the solidarity of our international partners, the government will be forced to change its attitude toward the unions, to be more transparent and to accept the Western values of a democratic society."
RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report