Kazakhstan: Kazakh oil workers heard in European Parliament

End attacks on lives and freedoms of worker activists!

On Monday Paul Murphy MEP (Socialist Party in Ireland) organised a hearing in the European Parliament on the issue of workers’ rights and the ongoing dispute of the oil workers in the West of Kazakhstan. Amongst the speakers were leaders of the workers’ movement like Ainur Kurmanov and Esenbek Ukteshbayev. The hearing was an opportunity for the workers and activists to make their voice heard and to make contacts for solidarity campaigns.

The hearing was opened by Paul Murphy who explained that Kazakhstan is potentially a very rich country with a huge amount of natural resources. But at the same time a majority of the population only knows poverty and misery. All resources, all wealth and all power are concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite that doesn’t hesitate to defend its privileged position with any means possible, including violent repression. That is also why the ongoing oil workers’ strike in the Mangistau region is of crucial importance. Despite the repression and the pressure on the workers, they continue their strike. Their determination turns the strike into a point of reference of resistance against oppression and exploitation.

Mukhtar, an oil workers’ union leader, described the background of the conflict. He explained that this conflict has become of great importance as a turning point in the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union and as an expression of trade union solidarity. The strike started around demands on wages and working conditions. Management refused to negotiate and instead used brutal government repression against the strikers. As a consequence of the strike, 2,500 workers were sacked. They are only defended by the independent unions and the international support for which the visit of Paul Murphy had been essential. After more than four months the workers are demanding direct negotiations and the reinstatement of the 2,500 sacked workers.

European Parliament hearing in session

Harsh realities

A number of activists from Kazakhstan brought eye-witness accounts from the repression and the intimidation. A worker explained how the children of the oil workers were refused to go on a summer camp and refused access to the schools. Trade union leaders are harassed. A shop steward was killed and the daughter of another union leader was kidnapped, raped and killed. Independent media such as Stan TV is shut down. The lawyer for the oil-workers’ independent trade union was sentenced to 6 years in jail. Her appeal has been rejected.

Esenbek Ukteshbayev is president of the all-Kazakhstan independent trade union federation, Zhentau, and the ‘Socialist Movement Kazakhstan’. He spoke about the development of the independent unions and how the official unions are instruments of the government. The oil workers’ strike is playing an important role in putting the independent unions on the agenda. We need strong working class organisations against the government repression. The workers are determined because they have no other choice; this is a question of surviving. The regime is using the conflict as a test case. It is afraid of the potential of the movement and a further spreading of organised resistance. Therefore they now consciously turn against the leaders of the independent unions and against socialists. For example, a criminal case has been fabricated against Esenbek and Ainur which could see them imprisoned for at least two years. (See articles on this site.)

Ainur Kurmanov explained that this conflict is about more than wages and working conditions. It provokes a discussion on how social relations are organised and how the huge discontent can lead to explosions of anger. Independent trade unions are a first step in organising workers in the fight for their rights. But we have to go further and raise the demand for nationalisation under workers’ control of all major industry, the banks and the vast natural resources of the country to make sure the workers and their families can benefit from this wealth and can also decide on how it is used. The repression of the regime is aimed at maintaining the existing order. They are stepping up the violence and the intimidation; it more and more looks like the bloody Pinochet dictatorship in Chile after the coup of 1973. The struggle of the oil workers is becoming more political and undermines the importance of a federation of independent unions and a workers’ political organisation.

Ainur Kurmanov and supporters

Tanja Niemeier, a political adviser of Paul Murphy in the left fraction GUE/NGL and a member of LSP (CWI in Belgium), spoke about the political importance of the strike. The determination of the workers, despite the repression, is huge. The workers receive threatening text messages and some threats are also carried out. Houses are burned down, activists or family members killed. To continue the struggle we need international solidarity and for nationalisation and planning under workers’ control. That is the only way to organise production in the interests of the workers and to establish really democratic participation. Workers have lost their fear of fighting against the bosses and the regime. Enough is enough, a going back to what was before will not be possible.

The hearing also took a contribution from an activist from Uzbekistan who showed pictures of child labourers in the cotton industry. The European authorities remain blind towards these abuses. The hearing was an opportunity to make this scandal known.

Solidarity campaign

The European institutions of the capitalist establishment present themselves as the ‘international community’. However they do not defend the interests of the other ‘international community’ – the majority of the worlds’ population – the working and poor people. The declarations on human rights are limited to interventions in different parliaments. At the same time they try to consolidate and strengthen trade relations with governments to obtain access to natural resources. In this pursuit, dictatorships, repression and child labour are no obstacle.

We shouldn’t be fooled. We need to build our own contacts and international campaign. The hearing in the European Parliament was a useful event for this. The movement in Kazakhstan is important because of its potential, the fact that discontent is organised in independent unions who have a broad support. When workers and poor people lose their fear to protest, this can quickly lead to explosions. This was already seen in North Africa and the Middle East. The ruling cliques understand the dangers but can only turn to repression.

We have to support the oil workers in Kazakhstan and make their fight known. It was therefore very useful to have some Belgian trade union militants from the oil sector present at the meeting. They heard about the situation directly from their Kazakh colleagues and comrades so that they can take up the issue in Belgium. On Friday this week the Belgian CWI-section also plans a solidarity action in front of the European Championship qualifying football game between Belgium and Kazakhstan.

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