Opinion | Georgia’s labour reforms do little to fix the country’s deadly workplaces

27 December 2017
Miners from Tkibuli protesting for a ‘better labour code. February 2017 (Luka Pertaia/ OC Media)

From 2007 to January 2017, 437 people died and 716 were injured at work in Georgia. A lack of safe workplaces is one of the greatest challenges facing workers in Georgia, and one the authorities are failing to rise to.

The mining sector is perhaps the most affected sector in this regard. According to the trade unions, 24 miners have died in Tkibuli’s coal mines over the last seven years, while nine manganese miners have been killed in Chiatura over the last five.

[Read on OC Media: Mine collapses during labour inspection day after fatal accident]

One issue is the government’s failure to properly record industrial accidents. Those statistics mentioned above are based on data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and they only include cases which were officially investigated.

Oftentimes industrial accidents do not make it to the official stats, because no one reports them to the authorities and so they’re never investigated. This usually happens when employers reach an agreement with employees to keep silent. Such agreements can involve threats and blackmail from employers.

When accidents are investigated they are not done so effectively. The investigation tends to be dragged out until the public loses interest, and companies rarely face any repercussions. The blame is usually lain at the feet of some low-level or middle management employees.

In March 2010 four workers of Tkibuli coal mine died as result of an explosion. The same year in August four more died in the same mine as result of an explosion. In most of such cases the deceased workers were blamed for the accidents and the company wasn’t held responsible.

The statistic also don’t include people injured or dying because of occupational diseases (black lung disease is common and often fatal among miners) or people who die because of industrial accidents but whose death is not immediate.

In Georgia’s mines, the most common problems are always the same. Ancient machinery and infrastructure mean that equipment frequently fails; a lack of safety protocols and onsite medical care mean when things go wrong, people do not get help fast enough; and low quality, faulty ventilation and insulation systems force workers into direct contact with harmful and poisonous substances.

The reason these problems are never addressed is weak safety laws and no supervisory body that could enforce them.  

Abolishing labour rights in Georgia

The country’s labour laws were gutted in 2006 under the neoliberal policies of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government. Instead of reforming or replacing an admittedly corrupt Labour Inspection, it was simply shut down.

At the same time, parliament adopted a new labour code almost entirely focused on the rights of employers. Only one article — the right to a safe and healthy work environment — concerned labour safety. It obliged employers to provide a safe work environment, inform employees of all possible dangers to their health and safety at work, and compensate any medical expenses incurred by their work.

But for even such elementary regulations, the government of the day and those that followed failed to create any mechanism to enforce them.

This cavalier approach to labour safety violates a number of conventions Georgia is signatory to, including the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the European Convention on Human Rights. This has led to frequent criticism from local and international organisations, including the ILO, EU, and US State Department.

Despite the criticism, 2013 amendments to the Labour Code did nothing to significantly strengthen workplace safety.

A new Labour Inspection Department

After Georgia signed the Association Agreement with the EU in 2014, a new labour inspection department appeared on the agenda. The agreement obliged Georgia to create an effective mechanism (one that complies with ILO standards) to monitor labour conditions.

The government took some initial steps and in February 2015, they adopted Resolution 38 — Approval of the State Programme for Monitoring Labour Conditions. A year later, in an apparent attempt to show they were doing something, in January 2016 they adopted another resolution with practically the same content, Resolution 19 — Approval of the State Program for Inspection of Labor Conditions.

As a result, the Department of Labour Conditions Inspection was created in March 2015 under the Health and Labour Ministry.

Despite an impressive sounding mandate, the department doesn’t have any real power to improve labour conditions. It does not have the right to monitor:

  • if a workplace complies with legal safety standards;
  • if labour safety rules are in place and are followed;
  • If labour rights legislation (on working hours, holidays, maternity leave, etc.) is respected;
  • or to examine and record accidents.

In the end, the department simply doesn’t comply with ILO standards or the EU Association Agreement.

A voluntary inspection is not a real inspection

Another major shortcoming of the new labour inspection department is that it only includes labour safety, saying nothing of other areas of labour rights. Labour rights are inseparable from safety issues; a vast majority of workplace accidents occur due to physical fatigue, which is understandable when workers can’t take holidays, can’t take take days off when they’re ill, and are forced to work extra hours.

Another problem with the department is that it can only inspect workplaces at the owner’s invitation, and even then they must warn the company at least five days in advance. Naturally, this prevents them from getting an accurate picture of working conditions.

If the department identifies health and safety violations during an inspection, there are no penalties they can apply. Instead they issue ‘recommendations’, and it is entirely down to the goodwill of the company whether to fulfill them or not.

It’s quite telling that since the department's establishment in 2015 the number of people dying and being injured in the workplace has not reduced, but increased.

Parliament is now discussing new amendments to labour safety laws, but even these offer little hope for real change. They would still leave the Labour Inspection Department with a restricted mandate, including without unsolicited access to workplaces.

What Georgia’s workers desperately need is laws to force employers to take their safety seriously, and hold them criminally responsible when they do not. But for these, or even the current measly labour laws to have any effect, we first need an inspection department with the clout to back them up.

This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of FES or OC Media.

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