STRIKERS DEMAND PAYMENT OF WAGE ARREARS.
Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 15
On January 20, striking workers at a phosphorus plant in Janatas in southern Kazakhstan’s Zhambyl Region called on President Nursultan Nazarbaev to order an independent audit of the state-owned "Phosphorite" enterprise. The strikers say they are owed a total of $6 million in unpaid wages, and blame both the central and the regional governments for their plight. Fifty protesters set off for Akmola but were turned back by the militia, while 20 hunger-strikers were said to have been hospitalized. (Russian agencies, January 20; BBC, January 21)
The strike, which began in mid-December, originally involved 200 workers. Now, according to trade union leaders, 3,000 are marching. A government commission headed by Deputy Minister of Energy, Industry and Trade, Murat Murtazaev, visited Janatas last week. Afterwards, Murtazaev said the factory "was not doing badly." He praised a three-bank consortium, set up last November by governmental decree to provide financial aid, for having made good all wage arrears dating from November, 1997. The workers have not, however, been paid wage arrears predating November. The government says it can not come up with the $6 million the workers claim, and that the only solution lies in privatizing the plant. (Panorama, January 16) Murtazaev did not mention that "Phosphorite" is only one of four subsidiaries of the "Kazphosphor" company whose workers are suffering wage arrears. On January 21, President Nazarbaev replaced the regional head of administration, Amalbek Tshanov, with the head of his own presidential administration, Sarybay Kalmurzaev.
Strikes are unusual in Kazakhstan, where tough penalties are enforced for political protests. Kazakhstan’s Federation of Free Trade Unions, lobbying to win national and international media attention for workers’ grievances, is being investigated by the prosecutor-general on charges that it received financial support from abroad and deliberately incited social unrest. (Itar-Tass, January 19) The Janatas strikers have set a precedent by declaring hunger strikes involving whole families, some of whom are attracting added attention by camping out in sub-zero temperatures.
But the strikers represent only a tiny fraction of the population. The general unwillingness to strike is highlighted in a survey conducted in Kazakhstan last year under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency. Only 20 percent of those questioned said they had received all their wages on time, and "few thought the government was doing a good job." Nonetheless, the majority said they would be unwilling to resort to political means to voice their grievances. Moreover, Kazakhstanis are "somewhat more likely to blame local authorities for the nonpayments crisis than the central government," while "few place direct blame on President Nazarbaev." (Opinion Analysis, USIA, November 17,1997)
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