The ITUC has written to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili condemning police intervention to end the strike, the fourth at a major Georgian industrial facility in the past two years. The International Federation of Chemical. Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) lodged a similar protest on September 19 with the Georgian government.
International labor organizations and Georgian opposition parties alike have repeatedly accused the Georgian leadership of routinely ignoring workers' rights and safety in pursuit of foreign investment crucial to economic growth. Foreign direct investment in Georgia plummeted 58 percent in 2009 in the wake of the August 2008 war with Russia over South Ossetia, and a further 16 percent in 2010.
The Hercules plant is owned by Euroasian Steels, an Indian-Georgian joint venture, and produces reinforcing bars for construction. Its workforce numbers approximately 400-500 people, some 250-350 Georgians and 150 Indians.
In early August, some 147 Hercules employees established a trade union that the plant's management refused to recognize. Six elected union officials were dismissed. In early September, workers launched a one-day warning strike to demand the reinstatement of the six, a pay rise, and better working conditions, including provision of protective clothing.
Hercules deputy director Robert Tomaradze admitted that working conditions at the plant leave much to be desired. He said management is seeking to replace protective clothing issued to the workforce when the plant opened two years ago that wore out within months. The plant's management claims that workers' average monthly wage is 700 laris ($421), among the highest in the sector. The workers say they receive on average only 400 laris.
When the Hercules management failed to meet their demands, including for the reinstatement of their sacked colleagues, the Georgian members of the work force again downed tools on September 13; several declared a hunger strike.
During the night of September 15-16, police intervened at the request of the plant's management, detaining some 30 strikers, including the men on hunger strike, without producing warrants. All were released hours later. Tamaz Dolaberidze, head of Georgia's metallurgical, mining, and chemical industry workers' union, said they were required to sign a written commitment not to resume the strike. Police said the men only signed a statement that they had been warned by police not to engage in illegal actions.
Three strike participants, including one of the hunger strikers, have since been dismissed, reportedly for "violations of labor discipline." Others have been forced to resume work under police supervision.
By contrast, three earlier large-scale strikes ended in agreements between workers and management that addressed most, if not all, the strikers' grievances. In early February, some 800 employees at the Tkibuli coal mine in western Georgian launched a work stoppage to demand a pay rise and increased safety measures in the wake of three explosions that killed nine miners and injured 10 more. The mine's owners agreed to those demands.
Last year, metal workers at the Chiatura manganese mine and Zestafon Ferro-alloys plant went on strike with similar demands, to which the respective managements acceded after a fact-finding visit to Georgia by the ICEM general secretary.
Why the Georgian authorities chose to take a tougher stance in Kutaisi is not clear. The European Union has warned that lack of compliance with international labor conventions could jeopardize Georgia's continuing inclusion in the EU's General System of Preferences (GSP+), which allows Georgia to benefit from trade preferences from the EU.
Whether such warnings will have the required effect is debatable, however. Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, whom observers regard as a possible successor to President Saakashvili, recently admitted that "as long as we are so dependent on [foreign] direct investment, we are obliged to defend, and create comfortable conditions for, employers who bring in money."
Meanwhile, the abortive Hercules strike, and the international condemnation of it, will serve as grist to the mill of the five Georgian opposition parties -- the Christian Democrats, the Labor Party, the Social Democrats, the Georgian Party, and Free Georgia -- that have either expressed solidarity with the strikers or issued statements condemning the police intervention.