This article was originally published in Open Democracy.
By Tatuli Chubabria
Today, Georgian workers face severe violations of their labor rights, with low pay and negligent treatment by private corporations. Yet workers’ demands have no political weight.
Several weeks ago, the mine at Chiatura in western Georgia stopped production. Georgian American Alloys, a Miami-based manufacturer of ferroalloys and one of the biggest employers in Georgia today, temporarily suspended some 3,200 workers for four months, citing a slowdown on the international market.
At the same time, workers at a glass factory went on strike in a town not far from Chiatura. And most importantly, after two weeks of miners’ strikes and local protests in Tkibuli, also nearby, neither workers, nor the trade union, nor the government managed to advance their agendas in the workers’ disputes against a local coal-extracting business.
At Tkibuli and Chiatura, political actions have been absent. At the former, for instance, all the conditions seemed to necessitate political action: National television was live streaming from the strike, youth and human rights organizations were on the ground, satisfying the general public’s growing demand for information, and a public rally was organized in Tbilisi to support the miners. Nothing materialized.
When politics feels so light in Georgia, how could these people possibly position themselves against big business? What exactly is needed for political topics to acquire real weight in our country—a power of their own and support from other citizens?
The Unbearable Lightness of Politics
Today, currency devaluation, poor livelihood conditions, and the scarcity of employment alternatives has made the problem of exploitative labor practices increasingly pronounced across Georgia.
There is little in the form of protection. Everybody knows that Georgia’s current trade union (the Georgian Trade Unions Confederation) plays the card of both business and the government. Both believe that in a country with high unemployment and low GDP per capita rates the only legitimate goals are preserving jobs or avoiding the relocation and closure of factories.
This situation has a history, of course. Cast back to the Rose Revolution in November 2003, when a revolutionary group of former government officials and politicians seized power.
The population were relieved at the overthrow of the stagnant and corrupt government that had emerged with the post-communist transition economy in the 1990s. It was in this period that the extractive industries mentioned above were reopened and revitalized as Saakashvili’s government tried to stimulate the economy.
What followed in Georgia was new institutionalist economic approaches (or “good governance”) to the country’s development. These approaches fostered privatization, enforcement of property rights, the advancement of managerialism, and the promotion of opportunism.
You’d be wrong to assume that this alleged new institutionalist model ended the phase of the so-called “transitional economy” without a strong interventionist state. This model ended the “transition” era through strong intervention in the affairs of business, but worked to weaken the institutional capacities necessary for maintaining balance between capital and labor.
As new marketization processes commenced in Georgia, the post-revolutionary political leadership centrally planned this process with the help of foreign investors and local oligarchs. Targets for the necessary number of jobs to be created, as well as the share of private turnover to be re-invested, were largely controlled by the state.
Most citizens living in industrial zones who are currently involved in organizing—be it in Tkibuli, Ksani, Chiatura or Zestaponi—can attest to this fact. Today, heavy industry workers on strike across Georgia believe economic efficiency was stable under Saakashvili, who, throughout his authoritarian rule, had the power to dictate to business elites where and what to produce.
Both the general public and the current ruling government have come to deeply despise new institutionalist economics. Yet among the demonstrators at the current strikes, there is no other desire but to see the state interfering in local development again.
But as Georgia’s formal and informal institutions were reconstructed around markets during the 2000s, the authorities would immediately neutralize and depoliticize any public discontent with marketization. Saakashvili himself would “hijack” such criticisms from other political parties or civic actors, making public statements against “those to blame” on behalf of the authoritarian leadership itself.
For example, in January 2011, after a series of fatal casualties at the Tkibuli coal mine, Saakashvili made a televised public speech from Yerevan, in which he demonstratively accused the coal mine owners of committing criminal offenses by not taking adequate safety measures.
Two of the plant’s workers, allegedly responsible for the casualties, were then punished. Of course, neither public accusations, nor arrests brought advancement in labor conditions, nor did they empower the workers in their relationship with their employers—as demonstrators at the strikes in Tkibuli can now report.
Instead, Saakashvili’s focus on mismanagement at Tkibuli was part of a broader program of “good governance” that depoliticized workers’ demands by framing grievances as responses to corruption, management or discipline issues, rather than genuine claims.
Although it did create jobs, the neoliberal economic model deployed under Saakashvili has not allowed for sustainable interventionist policies that could serve to lessen the destructive impacts of markets on Georgia’s population. While Saakashvili masked stories of everyday exploitation with populism, in reality, workers were never allowed to be vocal in their demands for interventionist policies to limit the power of corporations.
When you talk to strikers or workers involved in organizing movements locally across Georgia, they often talk of having been terrorized for voicing concerns about social protection and human rights conditions.
When injuries or deaths take place in hazardous working environments, or when there is a need to investigate accidents and enforce compensation claims—there is still nothing to shield Georgia’s workers from offenses and abuses of power by private companies.
How to Avoid Reductionism
Little of Georgia’s good governance strategy, coupled with the new institutional economics, attempted to strengthen democracy and create institutions that could shield the population from the negative effects of markets and trade liberalization. When there is no single body or organization fighting for better social protection and risk aversion mechanisms together with workers today, we see working people threatened, fought, and defeated individually.
Nowadays, “survivors” of Georgia’s new institutionalism openly say that improving labor protections will lead to Georgia losing its advantage over other countries in terms of cheap labor, thus deterring investors.
And today, despite local groups sensing and voicing their insecurities, or leftist solidarity movements (feminists, advocates of liberal drug policies, environmentalists etc.) joining protests at Tkibuli and Ksani glass factory, important parts of socioeconomic life are being politicized without any political reaction to it.
More pressingly, the Georgian government and the trade unions have taken reductive approaches to labor disputes. They treat them as special cases, taking actions in the mediation process that may be productive for the technocrats, but do not go far enough. Despite a rising number of people protesting across Georgia, state officials bypass or ignore discontent with ease.
Policy recommendations from the European Union, International Labor Organization or local and international human rights organizations in Georgia are left unfollowed. These institutions call for the commencement of tripartite “vibrant and sustainable social dialogue” between employers, employees, and the highest level of government.
This would require the government to represent a party, rather than a mediator between businesses and the employed, as well as the unions of the employees to be strengthened through provisions for collective bargaining.
Toward Social Transformation
We are yet to see a situation where oppression and exploitation can acquire the public representation capable of achieving change outside the Georgian election cycle. To change this, the politicized concerns and demands for real intervention on behalf of citizens against corporations must find space in Georgia’s media.
Journalists cannot treat labor disputes as standalone instances. Likewise, Tbilisi shouldn’t pay attention to Georgia’s periphery solely in terms of humanitarian aid, but develop together with it. More worryingly, misinformed media have a tendency to see human rights organizations and social movements that provide consultancy to workers or help strengthen their capacities as conspiracies against the state.
The conditions of globalized trade and increased marketization, as well as the collective action mobilized against it, represent an opportunity to create audible political actions in Georgia, be it together with leftist organizations, social movements or real trade unions.
The point workers and supporting leftist groups are making today is that while there is a demand for advancing democracy, there is also a refusal among Georgia’s exploited and oppressed to become significant only in terms of partisan politics.
People remember how labor strikes achieved minor victories in the twilight of Saakashvili’s rule—higher salaries, but no end to poor working conditions.
It is time for collective actions to deliver progressive goals. The balance between labor and capital is crucial for achieving welfare and prosperity.
Tatuli Chubabria is a coordinator of projects at Social Rights Program at Tbilisi’s Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center. She has a Masters in Social Policy for Development and is currently working on a sociological study of labor conditions among service and industry workers in Georgia. She also studies the causes and forms of homelessness in Tbilisi.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]