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Kazakh Builders Form Union In Test Of Government's Labor Reforms

Crane operator Kairat Aidar is the head of the newly formed construction workers' union.

NUR-SULTAN -- Builders working in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, say they have formed an independent labor union, the first to do so since the country last year amended its organized labor law to streamline the union-registration process.

The union, called Umit, said it received documentation confirming if was officially registered with the city's Department of Justice on May 20.

The head of the union, crane operator Kairat Aidar, said the move was prompted by the failure of crane operators in several cities to receive a wage increase given the inherent danger of the work.

"When the crane workers raised the issue of their salaries, we sought help from many unions. But they couldn't solve the problem," he said.

"So we decided to create a trade union that would protect the rights of all workers in the construction industry. We work within the law, and we require employers to comply with labor law," he added.

Last year, workers across Kazakhstan protested over poor working conditions and low wages in the oil-rich country.

The government approved reforms in May 2020 that made the registration process more straightforward and lifted a mandatory affiliation requirement that was seen as a major obstacle for creating unions.

Still, rights activists and labor leaders say the government has steadily increased pressure on unions since a series of deadly protests staged by oil workers in western Kazakhstan in 2011.

They note that early this year the right of workers to organize and carry out their activities without government interference was dealt a blow when the Specialized Interdistrict Economic Court in Shymkent suspended the independent Industrial Trade Union of Fuel and Energy Workers for six months for allegedly failing to register in accordance with the union law.

Human Rights Watch has said that claims the union violated registration provisions in the trade union law were "unsubstantiated or based on legal provisions that either no longer exist or do not apply."

"The improvements to the trade union law are nothing but lip service if Kazakh authorities are still trying to paralyze independent trade unions in practice," the rights watchdog's senior Central Asia researcher, Mihra Rittmann, said after the court ruled on February 5.

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