The workers of Kyrgyzstan have had very little experience of trade unionism. Under tsarist rule, unions were generally not tolerated. The Bolshevik revolution allowed unions to exist — on paper. But they were quickly turned into a “transmission belt” to pass on orders from the ruling Communist Party to the working class.
With the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan declared independence in August 1991. This should have ensured, finally, a measure of democracy. And this would have meant free and independent trade unions, as had been created in other post-Communist states, most notably in Poland.
But this was not to be. The government of Kyrgyzstan would rather have a pliable trade union movement it can control — as was the case in Soviet times — than a rowdy, messy, and independent one. Nearly six months ago, global unions including IndustriALL launched a major campaign to demand that Kyrgyzstan reject a proposed labour law that would have made unions once again into organs of the state.
The attempt to curtail union independence in the country needs to be understand in the context of the political turmoil that followed last October’s elections. A dozen opposition parties denounced the election as fraudulent, and a wave of protests engulfed the country. One group in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek managed to free a former President from jail. Protestors also occupied the parliament building. There were hundreds of injuries. On 6 October, the Central Elections Commission annulled the results of the election.
The trade union law was an initiative of the former chair of the Federation of Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan (FTUK), who was dismissed in February 2020, but has refused to leave his post. He held a fake election in December 2020, proclaiming himself the chair of the federation. The new law would give him absolute power, making it nearly impossible to remove him from office. All unions in the country would have been put under the FTUK’s control in terms of staff, finances and information.
As IndustriALL described it, “The draft law is in breach of ILO [International Labour Organisation] Conventions 87 and 98, ratified by Kyrgyzstan. If adopted, the draft law would deprive workers of freedom of association and unions of independence by significantly restricting union activities, dictating internal structures and putting unions under state control.”
The global union campaign, hosted on LabourStart and appearing in 20 languages, quickly got the support of over 6,200 trade unionists from around the world. In mid-March this year, the Kyrgyz Parliament postponed the third reading of the proposed law, and trade unions celebrated. It looked like a big win for the idea of independent trade unionism in Kyrgyzstan. But the celebrations proved to be premature. On the last day of March, the new law was approved by the country’s parliament. This shocking turnaround led to a number of global unions, including the International Trade Union Confederation, calling on the country’s President to veto the law, which, it was argued, would deprive workers of freedom of association.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyz workers continued to protest, demanding the right to independent trade unions.
• Eric Lee is the founder editor of LabourStart, writing here in a personal capacity