Several hundred people took to the streets of Tbilisi on Monday to protest poor labour safety measures after two construction workers were found dead at a construction site.
Demonstrators began their protest at the Georgian Government’s Chancellery building, after which they took to the streets and marched to the construction site where the accident happened.
On Sunday, the bodies of two construction workers were found at a building site on Tbilisi’s Chavchavadze Avenue. The men, aged 26 and 40, allegedly died due to a landslide caused by the construction work.
Protesters chanted ‘the city full of death’, parodying Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze’s election slogan — ‘City full of life’.
During the rally, protestors demanded officials come to take responsibility for the workers’ deaths.
‘The officials did not show up yesterday where the accident happened. We will not disperse until they come here and offer us a rational plan to put an end to this. We will not disperse until the government tells us they care about human life’, Neno Charkviani, an activist from labour union the Solidarity Network, one of the organisers of the rally, said.
She added that officials often claim that the EU-Georgia Association Agreement obliges them to take action, but that the government must now prove it cares about its citizens ‘not out of obligation but out of will’.
‘[They have to prove they] care about human life, our lives, and our rights. We will not disperse until the government stops killing and torturing human beings. As long as people are being buried alive, we will not disperse and will continue to fight. We don’t need the kind of laws that remain solely on paper, which are not executed. We need the kind of law that the government executes’, Charkviani said.
Protesters gathered at 5 Chavchavadze Avenue, near the fatal construction site, where they demanded until 23:00 that officials show up to the rally.
Protesters clashed with police in an attempt to block the road. Four activists were detained on administrative charges for disobeying police and disorderly conduct but were released the following day.
The Mayor’s office said Mayor Kakha Kaladze was ready to meet a small group of activists privately, but protestors refused the offer. After officials failed to show up to the rally, protesters marched to Kaladze’s home, reiterating their demands.
The rally ended with activists announcing the creation of a new movement.
The head of the Health Ministry’s Labour Inspection Department, Beka Peradze, told Netgazeti that three companies involved in the construction had been sanctioned.
‘Lechkombinati has been temporarily banned from continuing construction work’, Peradze said, adding that contractor Transmsheni, ‘whose employees barred labour inspectors from entering the construction site’, were fined ₾7,000 ($2,600).
He said that another contractor company, Khiminjmsheni, who was not officially registered, was fined ₾1,000 ($375).
‘Poor labour safety measures’
Workplace safety has gained increased public attention in Georgia in recent years, with dozens of rallies held by workers, activists, and unions following workplace accidents.
Promoting a safe and secure working environment for workers through an effective state supervisory mechanism for labour inspection was among the obligations Georgia undertook as part of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement, which was signed in 2014.
The agreement specifies that the Government must not ‘fail to effectively enforce […] labour law as an encouragement for trade or investment’.
After pressure from activists, Georgia adopted a law on occupational safety granting inspectors new powers to inspect all workplaces in the country without a court order or prior warning. However, the law does not come into force until 1 September.
On Monday, protesters demanded the law be enforced immediately.
The previous law, adopted in March 2018, covered only 11 hazardous sectors. Under the new law, all sectors, both public and private, will be subject to safety inspections.
The law also broadened the mandate for the Labor Conditions Inspection Department, a supervisory agency established in 2015 that is currently under the labour and social affairs ministry. The department is also responsible for combating human trafficking and labour exploitation.
The toll of inefficient legislation
According to statistics provided by the Interior Ministry to the Public Defender’s office, 59 people died and 199 were injured in 2018 due to work-related accidents, ‘which greatly exceeds the numbers from the previous year’.
Data obtained by OC Media from the Ministry of Internal Affairs showed that in 2010–2017, 359 people were killed and 984 injured in workplace accidents.
The Public Defender’s 2018 parliamentary report said that ‘this means, enforcement of Labour Safety Law has not improved the concerning safety situation at workplaces, which was caused by its fundamental flaws’.
‘While it’s true that the law introduced an important obligation, the execution of these regulations was not guaranteed by an efficient inspection system as supervisory bodies were not allowed at workplaces unconditionally’, the report said.
The data requested by the Public Defender from the Labour Inspection Department showed that from January 2018 to 15 February 2019, some 213 enterprises were inspected as a part of the governmental programme.
As a result, dozens of challenges were identified, including the absence of risk assessments, of individual and collective protection tools, malfunctioning machines, and the absence of emergency action plans, among others.
What are officials going to do
The day after the protest, a number of officials responded to the protesters’ demands.
The chair of Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, Sopo Kiladze, described the situation as ‘truly severe’.
‘Despite numerous of our reforms in the field of labour rights and safety, workplace death prevails. It’s a fact that our labour safety policy fails to protect human life and health. Our laws are not efficient enough to protect people. Neither is their execution and it is an unfortunate reality that in exchange for colossal gains of certain irresponsible companies, who don’t fear sanctions, people are dying’, Kiladze said.
She added that it was unacceptable for business interests to be protected at the expense of human lives.
‘Improving [the execution of labour safety laws] naturally requires more funds. If the Minister of Finance tells us they don’t have this money, I think we should get this money’, Kiladze said.
Minister of Health and Labour Davit Sergeenko said that as well as government labour safety checks, it was very important for companies to share the burden of ensuring workplace safety.
‘If these companies don’t ensure efficient work of safety services, this will be less effective. It is our duty to make these companies, who don’t realise the need, to take measures using legal, transparent, and understandable actions’, Sergeenko said.
However, Tbilisi mayor Kakha Kaladze took a different tone, criticising the protesters, accusing the organisers of being ‘managed’ by an unnamed ‘political element’.
‘For me, personally, their demands are unclear. I have no information regarding this. As for yesterday’s demonstration, to which I responded, I was told it was a group of youngsters who protested for workers rights’, Kaladze said.
He added that he was ready to meet with them and explain what the officials had done so far to resolve the issue, but that ‘everybody saw the developments’.
‘After I saw who the organisers were, everything became clear. There was a political element in the rally, which is very unfortunate. I won’t elaborate on who’s behind them and who manages them’, Kaladze added.