On the morning of January 11, oil worker Meyrambek Kuantaev climbed up a construction crane at the Kalamkas oil field in Kazakhstan's western Mangistau Province and stayed there for about 24 hours.
He was protesting. So are others, though they are not climbing on cranes.
There is a showdown going on in Kazakhstan, and it was inevitable.
One week before Kuantaev scaled the crane in Kalamkas, an economic court in the southern city of Shymkent ordered the Confederation of Independent Labor Unions of Kazakhstan closed.
The government has been slowly squeezing independent unions since an oil worker strike in western Kazakhstan in 2011. That protest lasted more than half the year and resulted in one of the bloodiest events in Kazakhstan’s history. Independent trade unions, as would be expected, sided with the oil workers during the months of the strike.
In 2014, restrictive laws were passed that limited the rights of workers and trade unions.
Union registration regulations were among those changes.
On December 5, 2016, the Justice Ministry filed a case against the confederation for failure to provide all necessary documentation for registration within the prescribed time.
Lawyers for the confederation said the Shymkent court rejected motions to postpone the start of the trial until the defense could prepare its case, and also denied the defense the opportunity to questions witnesses.
According to a January 10 statement from Human Rights Watch (HRW), when the trial opened on January 4, “The court did not allow the confederation to present its case and ruled the same day.”
In Aqtau, the Mangistau provincial capital, dozens of workers from the Oil Construction Company (OCC), part of the oil-services sector, went on a hunger strike on December 5 to protest the court decision. They have vowed to stay at the OCC office and continue their protest until January 15.
Some of the workers told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, that their union had fulfilled all the regulations to be registered but they had filed a notice with city authorities that they would conduct a demonstration on January 15 to show solidarity with the confederation.
However, while protests are going on, or being planned, authorities have opened a criminal case against confederation President Larisa Kharkova, charging her with embezzling from the confederation. Police allegedly threatened to find more charges against her unless she resigned as confederation president.
On January 11, Kharkova told Azattyq that authorities had searched her home and confiscated her computer, and searched the confederation’s office and the union organization’s accounting office.
Kharkova also told Azattyq the OCC protest in Aqtau was a "personal, not a labor-union action of protest."
Ever since the violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011, authorities have been careful in dealing with the oil workers. Kazakhstan scaled back oil production as oil prices dropped but rather than lay off workers, companies moved many of the workers to part-time.
Authorities even tolerated strikes and demonstrations in mid-2016 when workers first started to protest against state moves to bring independent unions into line.
Late last year, layoffs started and according to the labor minister, would affect nearly 20 percent of the workers in the oil sector. Authorities have assured benefits would be available to those who lose their jobs, and held out the possibility that once the massive offshore Kashagan field, which started operation in October 2016, started full production many of workers laid off would be rehired.
But from the oil workers' perspective, authorities have been chipping away at their rights, and the latest example is that they are losing the independent unions that represent them.
This is particularly true for the oil services workers. Many of those installing or maintaining equipment, or transporting oil, have long felt they were being treated as “second-class” workers. One common complain they have is that the government gives out contracts for various tasks and every time this happens a new company comes in to manage projects, often with new regulations or par scales for the oil service employees.
Workers in the oil services sector say independent unions are their best hope for receiving fair conditions for performing work for new contractors. Some of these workers are old enough to remember the situation in the 1990s when there were no independent trade unions and the government-sponsored unions that existed readily acquiesced to state demands and terms.
These protests under way are the first for 2017 but likely not the last.