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Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze has dismissed demands by metro drivers for higher pay. The Tbilisi Metro shut down on Monday, less than a day after metro drivers began a hunger strike. Passengers were not warned in advance about the possible shut down, only to see a message about it posted on station entrances, offering free bus rides instead. Traffic jams, overcrowded buses, and a shortage of taxis were reported on Monday morning.
The Tbilisi Transport Company, who operates the metro, have confirmed the shutdown was due to the strike. Workers on strike demanded a meeting with Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze.
Kaladze responded by calling the strike ‘blackmail against Tbilisi residents’. ‘As the ongoing strike aims to worsen people’s the conditions of life, we decided to provide them with municipal buses free of charge, as well as the additional reserves [of buses] we have’, said Kaladze.
Kaladze also called on metro drivers to stop ‘violating the law’, ‘disobeying the decision of the court’ and ‘putting their own interests above the welfare of the public’. On 21 May, Tbilisi City Court indefinitely forebode metro workers from going on strike ‘during working hours’, a decision that was criticised by a number of human rights groups, with Public Defender Nino Lomjaria calling it ‘a dangerous precedent of restricting the right to strike’ on 23 May.
At a press briefing, Kaladze presented a document purportedly showing that metro drivers earn ₾1,400–1,800 ($570–730). The mayor, like as on previous occasions, compared these to ‘much lower’ salaries received by police officers, emergency medical and rescue workers, and firefighters. Workers on strike complained that by doing so, Kaladze was attempting to drive a wedge between them and Tbilisi residents.
Kaladze said that the demands of drivers and ‘so-called workers’ rights advocates’ to raise metro drivers’ salaries by 45% would ‘automatically raise the price of metro tickets’, something he said workers were not against during negotiations.
Lina Ghvinianidze, a lawyer from rights group the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) working on labour rights, accused the mayor of lying several times. She claimed the salaries the mayor showed at his briefing were not accurate.
According to Ghvinianidze, first-class drivers receive a salary of ₾1,150 ($470). Ghvinianidze also said that ‘workers actually obeyed the court’s ruling’.
Metro drivers union Ertoba 2013 claimed they did not violate the court’s ruling even though it was ‘unconstitutional’. They said they were on strike only during their non-working hours, but as this affected their health conditions, they failed to pass medical examinations at their workplace.
After the metro was shut down, the Tbilisi Transport Company released a copy of a collective agreement to press showing that since 2017, ‘line drivers’ received salaries of ₾1,827, with additional information about bonuses. In response to the mayor’s and company’s claims, some striking workers began to share images of bank statements about their salary transfers.
Labour rights advocates including members of student movement Auditorium 115 and EMC called for solidarity with the striking workers, and for residents of Tbilisi not to blame any transport discomfort on the workers. This sentiment was echoed by Aleko Elisashvili, an urban policy activist and a runner-up of the 2017 mayoral elections, who blamed Kaladze for the strike, as he was ‘too busy taking pictures with his selfie stick […] to meet with his employees’.
Auditorium 115 announced a rally in support of the striking metro drivers for Monday evening.
‘High mortality rate’
Metro drivers have been demanding higher salaries since 2016. Ertoba 2013 has said that high humidity, noise, vibrations, light intensities, strong electric fields, high pressure, and other hazards to health contribute to a 60%–65% mortality rate by pension age among drivers.
On 18 April, drivers warned that they would go on strike on 3 May, paralysing the whole metro system. The drivers said an average driver made ₾1,150 ($465) a month before tax, an hourly wage of ₾7 ($3), which they said should be raised to ₾10 ($4) per hour.
On 2 May, Tbilisi City Court ruled they could not go on strike for a month, which the court later changed to an indefinite ban on striking ‘during working hours’.