Disciplinary proceedings have been initiated against employees of the Georgian Social Service Agency for writing comments online critical of their working conditions.
On Tuesday, at least seven employees of the agency received emails stating that they had ‘allegedly violated ethical norms and general rules of conduct’.
The seven are accused of ‘discrediting employees and the agency’ for their comments on Facebook critical of Deputy Health Minister Tamila Barkalaia and talking about the hard working conditions in which they have to work.
The seven work as ‘social agents’, which are responsible for assessing if people are classed as ‘socially vulnerable’ and therefore eligible for social assistance payments.
For several years Georgia’s social agents have called for improvements in their working conditions, including higher salaries, reimbursement of work travel costs, an extension of employment contracts, and for more to be done to break negative stereotypes about social agents in society.
Giorgi Pureliani, one of the first of the social agents to receive the letter, told OC Media that this was a restriction of freedom of speech for employees and an attempt to intimidate them.
‘The agency has been grossly violating our rights for years, and everything my colleagues and I have written and said is based on our own experiences’, he said.
‘Sending this letter to us is an obvious attempt at intimidation. I cannot call it anything else’, Pureliani continued.
The letter addressed Pureliani cited two comments he made on Facebook critical of his employers. One was in response to a video by pro-government TV channel Imedi that was posted on the official Facebook page of the Social Service Agency on 7 April. The second was in the comments section of Imedi radio show ‘Economics’ posted the following day.
The letter also cited Pureliani’s appearance in a story about the working conditions of social workers aired by opposition-leaning TV channel Mtavari on 10 April. In his interview in the story, Pureliani accused the Ministry of Health of violating the rights of its employees.
Three of the seven employees to receive letters appeared in the programme.
Davit Omsarashvili, a representative of the trade union the Solidarity Network, told OC Media that all seven of the social agents who received letters were members of the trade union and that this may be a deliberate act of persecution against them.
‘Freedom of speech and expression in our country is enshrined in the Constitution’, Omsarashvili said. ‘The Social Service Agency has no basis to open a case.’
The results of the disciplinary probe could range from a warning, to a fine, or dismissal from the agency.
According to Omsarashvili, the letter sent to the social agents is incomplete and does not properly explain the basis on which proceedings were initiated against them.
‘Accordingly, we asked the Social Services Agency to provide us with information about which norm these people have allegedly violated.’
‘Even if they do not impose any disciplinary sanction, the initiation of this case is being used to intimidate employees not to talk about the illegal problems created in the Social Service Agency’, Omsarashvili added.
The Social Services Agency told OC Media that no one was available to comment.