Poltava strike ended

August 28, 2010

The strike by iron ore miners at the Poltava enrichment plant, mentioned in the previous item, ended on 20 August, and the issues in dispute put into negotiation. It has been reported in the local media that the local government authorities are mediating between the workers and the company, Ferrexpo, which is majority-owned by Konstantin Zhevago, one of Ukraine’s richest men. I don’t have any more details yet.

Ukrainian iron ore miners seek international solidarity

August 10, 2010

Here’s an appeal, sent by the Narodna Solidarnist independent trade union, asking for messages of support and solidarity action. I support this initiative and hope readers will do the same. (You can download the appeal here solidarityferrexpo as a document, and send it to others.)

A major dispute is underway between mineworkers in Poltava, West Ukraine, and Ferrexpo Plc, a major player on the global market mainly engaged in mining of iron ore.  All three shifts in the open cast in the town of Komsomolsk, of more than 300 workers each are now involved in industrial action. Some railway locomotive drivers and workers on the iron ore concentrating factory have joined in solidarity. 

The action started on the 1st of August at 10 AM when the workers at the ore-dressing open cast pit started at first with a go-slow and work-to-rule.   The action began when haul trucks drivers on their way down to the 305 meter deep quarry reduce speed of the vehicles from normal 40-45 km/h to the more safe 10-15 km/h.  Excavator and bulldozer operators, as well as drilling technicians then joined the action in solidarity.   Within 24 hours of the workers action total rock production had fallen by less than 60% of normal volume.  This impact of the workers resistance is continuing.

 The cause of the dispute was a recent re-evaluation of workplaces which led to the opencast mine workers being moved from the ‘1st list’ (which implies heavy-load conditions) to the ‘2nd list’.   This means abolition of a number of benefits:

•           The retirement age will be lifted from 50 to 55 years;

•           required working life will be increased from 20 to 25 years;

•           required length of service at heavy-load workplaces – from 10 to 12.6;

•           10 days will be cut from annual holiday entitlement

Evaluation is done every 5 years; after the previous one, workers kept their ‘1st list’. Since then their trucks became older, while the mine grew even deeper. Despite the fact that the certification of job hazard categories is in contravention of Ukrainian law all legal means to contest it led to protracted and unresolved cases in the courts.

 Over the last year the management has used lies and blackmail to increase production rates; however each time rates were raised at the end of the month the workers were left without their deserved bonuses. To fulfill quotas, truck drivers routinely have to transgress the legal speed limit.  Until recently, the highest speed has been 25-32 km/h (depending on the make of vehicle), while truck drivers have to drive at 40-45 km/h. 

The company still considered production was growing too slowly.  The company used this to deny workers their bonuses. The bonus in question could reach 1000 UAH which is a significant proportion of the average wage (4500 UAH). Meanwhile, during last 2 years workers’ incomes have dropped almost fourfold due to inflation and currency devaluation.

Working hours have also been increased from 8 to 12 per day. Also, drivers of heavy haulers (90-136 tons Belaz, Caterpillar and Komatsu mining trucks) are now being officially registered simply as ‘drivers’.

In response to this intolerable situation the industrial action is continuing; judging from the results of the first week, the management isn’t eager to look for constructive solutions. With their every step, the factory management has sought to escalate the dispute.

After workers had announced the beginning of their action in the media, the Ferrexpo company press department has launched a disinformation campaign trying to refute and misrepresent the workers action.    After video of interviews with workers of the mine had been shown, the press began to side with the workers.  In response the company has adopted a new tactic of seeking to enter into negotiations, whilst launching a new press campaign in order to assure the Ukrainian and foreign media that there is no threat of a full stoppage of production at the mine, and that the action doesn’t affect the enterprise’s revenues.

Meanwhile, at a meeting with the region’s deputy governor, workers were invited to stop the industrial action, and a new commission for evaluation would be instituted. Workers, fearing deception, continued their action, and the next day, 4th of August, the management issued order #1800 by which it has unilaterally scrapped a number of safety rules for drivers of heavy haulers.   Specifically, they excluded the rule which forbade overtaking and included the rule which sets minimal speed limit.   Overtaking and overruns are the two most frequent reasons of wrecks in the quarry.

The independent trade union ‘People’s Solidarity’ has written collective letters to the public prosecutor’s office and to the Ombudsman. The management also appealed to the local authorities, and activists received summons to the local public prosecutor’s office. It seems like authorities act as employer agents to intimidate workers. One of the workers’ leaders was fired. Some workers were suspended from work. Repressions against workers are growing.

Now employer has hired 70 scab drivers from another city and put them up in a hotel in Komsomolsk under the guard of private detectives.   Every day armed with the Kalashnikov machine-guns private guards’ convoy scabs to the quarry and back to the hotel giving no possibility even to speak to them. (It should be noticed that machine-gun firearms are officially prohibited for private guards in Ukraine.)  At the moment strikebreakers have not succeeded in increasing production because they do not find it so easy to drive the heavy mining trucks.   It’s clear that it would be impossible to increase output without grave danger for the life of workers. But it looks like the employer does not care about possible fatalities.

In spite of this the strikers are resolute; they are doing their utmost to maintain their action in the face of the intimidation and strike breaking by Ferrexpo Plc.   The management, having no desire to agree to the workers demands, pays for publications in the international media on a daily basis, assuring readers of colossal revenue growth. Such boasting is particularly cynical, since everyone knows that this revenue is obtained by the super-exploiting of the workers at the enterprise.

The industrial action will last until full satisfaction of the workers’ demands, which are as follows:

•           An increase of wages by at least 50%;

•           Lowering daily and monthly output quotas to fit the safety requirements and actual human abilities;

•           Restitution of the ‘1st list of hazard’ and relevant social and pension benefits to all workers of the mine.

This action is clearly provoked by the employer’s impudent unwillingness to meaningfully negotiate with the workers.   Ferrexpo Poltava Mining CEO Viktor Lotous said to workers that they are “clowns” and advised one driver to “change his wife” if he can’t provide for the family.

Nearly 1000 workers are involved in the action and are losing now approximately 40% of salary due to the underfulfilment of output norms.

The Poltava miners need international solidarity to force Ferrexpo to stop repression, negotiate seriously and secure the workers just demands.

Send messages of solidarity to:

‘Narodna solidarnist’ trade union

E-mail: ccc@narsolidarnist.org.ua

Telephone:  +380 44 2291167. Fax: +380 44 5298901;

 www.narsolidarnist.org.ua – (note. there’s information on this and other workers’ actions on that site in Ukrainian.)

Organise protests at Ferrexpo Plc:

Ferrexpo plc, Bahnhofstrasse 13, CH-6340 Baar, Switzerland. Telephone: +41 41 769 3660

2 – 4 King Street, London SW1Y 6QL. Telephone: +44 207 389 8300

 Ferrexpo Poltava Mining JSC (Poltavskij GZK VAT)

16 Stroiteley Street, Komsomolsk 39802, Poltava Region, Ukraine

E-mail: pgok@ferroexpo.poltava.ua. Telephone: +38 (05348) 21670

Please send information about protest actions and copies of protest letters to the ‘Narodna solidarnist’ trade union on e-mail  ccc@narsolidarnist.org.ua.

“To live humanly – with dignity”

July 22, 2010

Labour movement activists in Moscow believe that the strikes, meetings and demonstrations that spread through the Kuzbass coalfield in May – the most widespread in recent years – could be renewed later this year. The protest movement surged brought miners and their families into conflict with local government and the security forces as well as mine managers.

The protests were triggered by one of Russia’s worst mining accidents in recent years, at the Raspadskaya mine at Mezhdurechensk. An explosion late on 10 May killed a group of miners and left others trapped underground; a second blast caught rescue workers and miners trying to reach the trapped men. The total reported death toll was 67.

Inspectors’ reports indicated that the first explosion was caused by high concentrations of methane gas. Mine managers had turned a blind eye to workers – who rely on productivity payments to make a living wage – tampering with safety equipment. They had disabled gauges that automatically shut down the power supply to drilling equipment if gas concentrations exceed a certain level.

Safety officials have started criminal proceedings against the mine manager, Igor Volkov. But as any miner will tell you, this is a question of corporate culture. Institutional collusion is needed to neutralise safety equipment significantly. And there is a history in post-Soviet Russia’s privatised pits: in 2007, when 110 died at the Ulyanovskaya mine in western Siberia, it emerged that safety equipment had been tampered with there, too.

On 14 May, miners gathered in the town square of Mezhdurechensk – a historic meeting-place during the 1989 miners’ strike, the key event in the late Soviet revival of the Russian workers’ movement.

 Kvant, a local TV station, reported that miners arrived “in groups, whole work brigades”, with their families. In a clip posted on You Tube, the journalists promised to transmit interviews “without any censorship”. You can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGL0U3xbYiQ&feature=player_embedded One miner, surrounded by his workmates, said they were demonstrating because:

No-one from the mine management came to beg forgiveness. No-one in any official position came and said, “forgive us please, mothers, forgive us, wives [of those killed in the explosion]”. [The management] didn’t really grieve. That was all false. […] [We want] to live humanly – with dignity. It’s that simple. Everyone thinks we get huge great money. But actually people here live from one wage packet to the next. On average, without fulfilling the plan, people get 25,000 [rubles per month. The ruble/$ exchange rate is about 30:1.] If the plan is met, 30-35,000 – 40,000 is the absolute maximum. […] But it’s dirty money. To receive that 35,000, our lads – for the sake of their families, not for the sake of money – go into the mine to work and, honestly, they break safety regulations. They disable the methane gauges. Because it’s impossible to do otherwise. There is a great deal of [methane] gas. It’s constantly present. […] All the managers know perfectly well what’s going on. And they [the managers] on the surface do too.

Other interviewees said pay was cut after the 2008 financial crisis and that when miners complained, the mine manager responded: “If you don’t like it, I’ll just bring in Chinese workers who’ll work for half of what you get.”  

Overnight on 14-15 May, protesters blocked a local railway line. About 200 of them confronted the riot police (OMON) who arrived to try to move them on. The miners and their families were attacked by OMON officers with batons; stones were thrown in response and 28 arrests made.

As tension rose in the region, and labour movement activists feared an extension of repressive action, a manifesto appeared on the internet signed by the Union of Kuzbass Residents, an unknown organisation. It called for mass meetings in towns throughout the region on 22 May; urged “all parties and public organisations” to support those arrested during the railway protest; and called for mass meetings to become a regular feature of the region’s political life. The appeal is reproduced below, in the item dated 17 May.

Despite the mystery surrounding the appeal’s origin, local authorities in Kuzbass became concerned about the planned day of action. Many of them reacted nervously, arranging sports activities – and in the case of Kiselevsk, an organised potato-picking expedition – and putting security services on standby.

On 22 May, a small group of people turned out to demonstrate in Mezhdurechensk. Andrei Orlov, a miner at the Olzherasskaya-Novaya pit and activist in the Independent Miners Union, told the protestors that security guards had detained and interrogated him, and asked him to attend a forensic centre to be tested for traces of drug use. He refused and said he would only accept testing by independent doctors – an understandable stance, since a miner activist from Yakutsk, Valentin Urusov, is currently serving six years’ hard labour on trumped-up drugs charges.

In Novokuznetsk, the regional capital, a crowd of 300 gathered at the town hall, where the mayor, Valerii Smaly, had agreed to meet the protestors. An angry exchange between the crowd and officials was published on Russia’s most comprehensive site for labour and social movements, IKD.ru. Many of the speakers from the crowd focused on the issue of low wages. IKD.ru’s correspondent quoted with pathos a woman who jumped up to the microphone as the chairman tried to close the meeting and said:

Esteemed gentlemen! You have spoken many fine words hear but, listening to you, I understood that nothing will change. This city has no future. My daughter’s husband is a miner and he takes home 9000 [rubles a month]. My daughter is pregnant now. The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is to say to her that she should get a termination. She just will not be able to bring up a child on that.

In the days that followed, promises of two 7% pay rises in rapid succession were formalised and the movement subsided – for now. Activists in Moscow, who had organised solidarity demonstrations with Kuzbass, began to discuss the lessons of an upsurge that had galvanised coalfield communities in a way not seen since the mid 1990s.

Andrei Demidov of IKD.ru, addressing a press conference on 31 May, said that the conflict in Mezhdurechensk had been sharpened by “many years of pressure on the free trade unions that had been active there, and other civil initiatives that were not under the control of the local authorities. As a result, at the critical moment, the energy of social protest burst out in radical forms.” Nevertheless, organisations had been developed to express mining communities’ interests, “and that is certainly not the virtual Union of Kuzbass Residents”, Demidov said. As well as an “initiative group” formed locally during the protests, there is the local branch of the Independent Miners Union, which has 60 members at Raspadskaya – while there are 3000 in Rosugleprof, the “official” union that is integrated into management structures in a way similar to the soviet-period union from which it is descended.

Those in Moscow who followed the events believe that none of the fundamental issues – the sharp fall in living standards that followed the 2008 crisis, the productivity drive in mines and other industries that endangers safety, and Russia’s gigantic legacies of other unresolved social problems – have been resolved. Further social movements are to be expected.

How they framed up an activist

July 21, 2010

Prosecutors and the courts in Yakutia in eastern Siberia ran roughshod over legal procedures in order to jail Valentin Urusov, a miner who had dared to organise his workmates at the Alrosa diamond mining company into an independent trade union.

The details are set out in a new article here: SL55-Urusov published in the Socialist Lawyer. More information about the campaign via this page here https://spirani.wordpress.com/free-urusov/.

An appeal from Mezhdurechensk

May 17, 2010

On 14 May miners and their families demonstrated in the town square of Mezhdurechensk in the Kuzbass coal basin in western Siberia. The gigantic spontaneous protest followed two explosions in the Raspadskaya mine, Russia’s largest, on 8-9 May, which left 66 miners and rescue workers dead, 24 missing and 84 recovering in hospital.

A local television report said that people had arrived “marching in whole work brigades”. There were various demands – for improvements in safety standards, better pay and living standards, and for Raspadskaya’s management to show compassion to the bereaved families. One miner told TV reporters that he and his workmates wanted “to live humanly and decently”, and to be able to work underground for reasonable wages without constantly cutting corners.

The demonstration ended in clashes with riot police, and at the time of writing the situation remains tense. By far the best source of information in English on the dispute is  http://chtodelat.wordpress.com/

This translation of an appeal by a local organisation is copied from there:

Open Appeal from the Union of Inhabitants of the Kuzbass to the President and People of Russia and the Residents of the Kuzbass

While our labor makes billions of dollars for people who then spend it to build themselves palaces and villas where later our prime minister celebrates, we die by the hundreds in mines and our people destroy themselves for kopecks.

The latest events in Mezhdurechensk were the last straw for us — we can be patient no longer.

We will not be slaves, beasts of burden that do not have to be taken into account, however much certain people in charge would like to do this. We are tired of slavery and humiliation. Enough!

We appeal to President Medvedev. If, of course, he is really our president, and not someone else.

Our demands are as follows:

1. Release all those who have been arrested in Mezhdurechensk in the coming days and drop all criminal charges against them. Put an end  to the mainstream media’s insults and slander against the people of our town.

2. Raise the wage in all profitable mines in the region to three times above the minimum wage, but no lower than 45,000 rubles [per month, approximately 1200 euros]. It is low wages that lead to safety violations that result in our people dying by the hundreds.

3. End persecution of independent union activists who defend the interests of workers. Those responsible for this persecution should be severely punished.

4. Remove from Mezhdurechensk all the Interior Ministry forces that have been brought in from other towns.

5. Introduce in every town monthly mass meetings of the people with the head of the local administration, at which he would report to the people what useful things he has done for them over the past month and personally answer questions and receive petitions and appeals from citizens.

We will not be satisfied with other proposed solutions to our problems.

We await your answer, Mr. President of Russia. We expect an answer by the morning of Friday, May 21. If our demands are not met, we will then be forced to speak and act in the realm of politics, not of social demands.

Now we appeal to the people of our region.

In order to hear what the high authorities of our country have decided, we will gather on Saturday, May 22, outside the administration buildings in our Kuzbass towns at 4:00 p.m. sharp. We appeal not only to miners and their families to attend these assemblies, but also everyone who is not indifferent to the overall state of affairs in our land. Let the bureaucrats come out and respond to our demands. The only thing that will satisfy us is complete compliance with all demands.

We immediately warn [Interior] Minister Nurgaliev and Governor Tuleyev that we do not advise them to play tricks with us the way they did on the evening of May 14 in Mezhdurechensk. We know that we are often not heard and that instead of talking with us they bring in the OMON.


1) We appeal to all parties and public organizations in our country. We ask for your support, if only in the form of an official announcement that you support our demands and are prepared to work with other parties to help us defend ourselves any way you can. If you do not announce your official position before May 21, this will mean that you are in fact against the people. And we will make this fact known to the entire country. We see that so far a representative of only one party has tried to help us; the rest are silent. We will need informational support and legal assistance — this assistance is already required for our arrested brothers in Mezhdurechensk. We will also need other kinds of support from you, including organizational help.

2) We ask all mass media that are not sell-outs to tell the public about our demands. Send us your representatives on May 22 and publish truthful information about the events here, not the lies that are broadcast on TV.

3) Because we are in an informational blockade — our forums and groups on social websites have been blocked by the FSB, and the ones that remain open are crawling with paid mercenaries, special services employees, and policemen who pass themselves off as ordinary residents and deceive people and the country with their lies — we appeal to all the people of Russia to tell the truth to their friends and on the Internet, to talk about the events here so that the country knows what is happening and the [powers that be] won’t be able to crush us. If they crush us today, tomorrow they will crush you.

4) We appeal to the residents of our region to make lists of everyone who lives in your town — bureaucrats and policemen — who is involved in persecuting our popular self-defense. Make these lists and publish them on the Internet, post them in the streets. Your whole town should know these people by name. The families of people who are prepared to beat women, as happened in Mezhdurechensk, should be ashamed of their fathers, brothers, and sons. If you know someone who has been sent to other towns to beat our people, collect information about them as well. Make your own leaflets with the list of our demands and information about the meeting places on May 22, and post them on the streets and on houses. Tell all your acquaintances and friends about the demonstrations. Do not believe anyone who tells you that our action has been cancelled, even if this information allegedly comes from us. Do not believe any other mendacious slander of the sort that is already flooding all the corrupt media. Collect money to aid our brothers who have been arrested and give it to their relatives. Do not be taken in by the propaganda of mercenary pseudo-activists, people who have been bought off by the authorities. Make your own white armbands and put them on at the assembly on May 22. Organize your own clandestine cells of the Union of Inhabitants of the Kuzbass.

We will meet on the streets of our towns on May 22.

For Freedom and Justice!

Mezhdurechensk has a significant place in the history of the Russian labour movement. It was there that the miners’ strike movement of 1989 – a key event in the renaissance of workers’ struggles in the dying days of the Soviet Union – broke out.

An article I wrote touching on some of the mine safety issues here: http://www.emergingmarkets.org/article.asp?PositionID=search&ArticleID=2486581

Modernization is easier said than done

May 17, 2010

Russia’s political leaders talk about modernization a great deal. But shifting the economy away from dependence on oil and gas revenues is proving very difficult. I gave an overview of the dilemmas they face in a recent article here: http://www.emergingmarkets.org/article.asp?PositionID=search&ArticleID=2487832

China is displacing Russia economically in central Asia

May 17, 2010

China is not only investing billions of dollars in the oil and gas sector in central Asia, but is also ramping up its trade in consumer goods with the region. This is bound to weaken Russia’s economic influence in central Asia. I discuss some of the issues in an article here: http://www.emergingmarkets.org/article.asp?PositionID=search&ArticleID=2478245

Marina Vlady backs Urusov campaign

March 28, 2010

Marina Vlady, widow of the iconic Soviet-era Russian singer Vladimir Vysotsky and one of the great French actresses of the 1960s, has backed a campaign for the release of trade union activist Valentin Urusov from prison.

The actress, who was married to Vysotsky from 1969 until his death in 1980, has joined a group of French trade unionists, academics and politicians who have signed an appeal demanding Urusov’s immediate release. The appeal notes Urusov’s serious medical problems and says the signatories fear for his life.

Marina Vlady won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1963 for her role in The Conjugal Bed and was the female lead in Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais d’Elle (1967).

NOTE: Supporters of Valentin Urusov, including the British miners’ union, are asking people to write to the Russian president demanding his release. Updates on the campaign here (you do NOT have to be a facebook member to read it): http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=wall&gid=172737769104

Hear about Urusov on the Solidarity Report from Radio Labour. Download the latest (28 March) mp3 from here http://www.radiolabour.net/ and go to 19 minutes and a few seconds.

Appeal in French here: http://la-sociale.viabloga.com/news/la-vie-du-syndicaliste-russe-valentin-ourousov-est-en-danger

News in Russian here: http://www.nr2.ru/275965.html

 And a better-than-average wikipedia article about Marina Vlady here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marina_Vlady

Striking Kazakh oil workers push past union to win concessions

March 28, 2010

A 19-day strike by between 6000 and 10,000 workers in Zhanaozen, in the Mangistau region of Kazakhstan, has won substantial concessions from the state-owned oil company Kazmunaigaz Exploration and Production (KMG E&P).

The strike – a large, long one by Kazakh standards – led to the scrapping of management proposals to reform the wages system, and the dismissal of the boss of Ozenmunaigaz, KME&P’s local subsidiary, who tried to imposed the changes.

According to local newspaper reports, the strikers demanded the dismissal of the trade union leader who recommended the new wages system; formed their own rank-and-file conciliation commission; and before returning to work secured promises that no rank-and-file strike leaders would be victimised by management or the police.

(Such demands, aimed against collaborationist unions and state repression, were typical of workers’ protests in Soviet times, and suggest that aspects of labour relations at KMG E&P remain unchanged since then.)

Management bullying triggered the walkout

KMG E&P estimated that the oil workers’ strike, between 1 and 19 March, cost about 2% of its daily output, or 12,000 tonnes of production. On 1 March, workers refused to leave the tents in which they are accommodated in working weeks. On 4 March the strike was made official. On 10 March it was declared illegal by the Zhanaozen city court, and 21 worker activists named as respondents.

The strikers’ first demand was that the company scrap proposals to consolidate into their basic wage premiums such as regional weighting payments and bonuses for dangerous working conditions. The regional weighting payment for Mangistau region – which has little economic activity besides oil production, extremely hot summers and cold winters, and to which most consumer goods have to be transported long distances – is 70% of the basic rate.

The strike seems in large part to have been triggered by bullying managers who told workers they had three days to sign a new contract, incorporating the changes, or be sacked.

Tabyn Ergenov, one of the strike leaders, was quoted in the Atyrau weekly newspaper Ak Zhaiyk as saying: “We were sent a notification [of the new pay system] that we had to sign within three days. It seemed to indicate that we were in for a substantial wage cut. People were furious that some workers were not even given the chance to consult with lawyers about the legality of these changes. They forced them to sign under threat of dismissal.”

Another activist, Sabit Tukenov, denied company claims that pay would increase under the new system. “No-one explained anything. They just brought this notification and tried to make people sign it. Of course many of us had questions. For example I work as a grade 5 driver; I drive a Kamaz with a trailer. For 168 working hours I would be paid, including all premiums, 135,000 tenge. Now, according to the notification, I would receive 106,000 tenge. Is our anger really so unreasonable?”

KMG E&P’s press service said that the new agreement would mean a pay increase of between 1% and 3%, that the guaranteed portion of salaries would rise from 55% to 77% of earnings and that a “9% inflation salary index” (?) had been introduced. Workers were clearly unconvinced – and , despite the proposals being introduced on the grounds that they were required by new labour legislation, management withdrew them at the end of the strike.

Workers turned on their union representative


The Zhanaozen strikers demanded the dismissal not only of Ozenmunaigaz’s director Baktygali Biseken and his deputy Amantaya Anshybaev, but also the president of the local oil workers’ trade union, M. Ibagarov.

Strike activist Ergenov said: “He [Ibagarov] approved changes in our pay in the name of the whole workforce of Ozenmunaigaz. Furthermore [the strikers demand] that [management] allow the formation of an independent trade union at the workplace. And we ask that Kairgeldy Kabyldin, the head of Kazmunaigaz [the national oil holding company that owns Ozenmunaigaz], and the heads of Samruk-Kazyny [the sovereign wealth fund through which the state owns Kazmunaigaz], and members of parliament, and the akim [governor] of Mangistau region, meet with us.”

(I don’t know the Kazakh oil workers’ union. But the information available suggests that it is a typical “traditional” or “official” post-Soviet union, i.e. a structure inherited from the thoroughly collaborationist organisations of Soviet times, with many of the same close links to management and top-down practices.)

The strikers’ refusal to act through the trade union caused managers additional problems, KMG E&P spokesman Daulet Zhumadil told reporters from Ak Zhaiyk. “The workers’ demands are illegal”, he said. “We will try to resolve the conflict through conciliation. But because the workers are disorganised, we can not start a reasonable dialogue. That’s why the employer has been obliged to go to court to complain of an unsanctioned strike.”

Later, KMG E&P negotiated with a conciliation commission, which seems to have been elected directly by the strikers – and announced that after “long and difficult negotiations”, agreement had been reached “on all issues”.

The strikers put ten formal demands, out of which seven – including Biseken’s dismissal, scrapping of the wages system reform, and guarantees that there would be no repression of strike leaders either by management or the security forces – were agreed by the company, Deutsche Welle’s Russian-language web site reported. The site said three demands had not been granted: full payment for strike days; the granting of separate legal status to Ozenmunaigaz; and the nationalisation of KMG E&P (which is majority-owned by the state, but also lists its shares on the London Stock Exchange and is 11% owned by China’s sovereign wealth fund).

The strike is the culmination of long-running labour disputes at Zhanaozen. Last year a smaller protest, by 30 workers, led to the award of a pay increase. The conflicts seem to exact a heavy price from KMG E&P in terms of managers: boss Biseken, sacked on 19 March as part of the settlement of this year’s strike, only took over from his predecessor Abylkhanov Daulbay in December, when he, too, was got rid of to satisfy strikers’ demands.

Fears of repression

Deutsche Welle quoted Kazakh opposition politician Vladimir Kozlov expressing fears that – despite the guarantees written into the settlement – there could be repression of the 21 conciliation commission members named by the Zhanozen court’s decision.

“Judging by the way the authorities have behaved in analogous situations before now, I would suspect that these people could be subject to harassment”, Kozlov said. “The psychology works like this: the mass of workers are back at work, and what happens afterwards will not bother them. And these 20 surnames will be remembered.”

Obviously that’s an issue for sympathisers with the workers’ movement the world over to watch.

Concerns about Chinese intentions

The reports of the strike in Ak Zhaiyk related the demands for nationalisation to workers’ concerns about Ozenmunaigaz being sold to Chinese companies. Reports about such a transfer had been aired on local TV and were strenuously denied by KMG E&P. The nature of the Chinese-Kazakh state relationship means that this particular rumour is probably baseless – but there is no doubt that Chinese involvement in the Kazakh oil industry, as both a major oil importer and an investor, is growing.

China shares a long border with Kazakhstan and its own undeveloped oil deposits in the Xinjiang-Uighur autonomous region are not far from Kazakhstan’s. As its thirst for oil rises, it makes sense to secure as much as possible from Kazakhstan, which is simply closer than other oil producers in which China is investing, particularly in Africa.

When the US financial crisis of September 2008 starved Kazakh oil companies of western debt finance, China stepped in with about $15 billion of loans, some tied to export deals, in 2009. There was a similar $25 billion package of loans for the Russian state-owned oil companies Rosneft and Transneft.

Kazakhstan’s 20 post-Soviet years could be interpreted as a shift from being a raw materials exporter to Russia, to being a raw materials exporter to China and the west (whose oil companies have made more headway in Kazakhstan than any other former Soviet state). For the next 20 years, you wouldn’t bet against China’s role rising constantly, and Russia’s declining further.

Perhaps during that time the Kazakh labour movement will take on some of the aggressive rank-and-file militancy, and intolerance for traditional union structures, that has characterised many recent strikes in China.

+++ You can hear about the strike on the Solidarity Report from Radio Labour. Download the latest (28 March) mp3 from here http://www.radiolabour.net/ and go to the 2 minute mark.

Note. I have written this article on the basis of reports in Ak Zhaiyk and Deutsche Welle, and on KMG E&P’s web site. This was the most substantial information I could find (links below for Russian speakers). I would welcome further information from anyone who has it.



$9bn+ import bill could renew gas conflict

January 28, 2010

Ukraine’s troubles with Russian gas and Russia’s troubles with Ukrainian transit are not over yet, even though there was a truce this winter. Although the next Ukrainian president, to be elected in second-round voting on 7 February, will be less antagonistic towards Russia than outgoing head of state Viktor Yushchenko, the underlying causes of the “gas wars” remain. In 2009, the government underwrote $6 billion plus of import payments, and the International Monetary Fund underwrote the government. Who will pay the 2010 import bills, likely to total $9 billion plus? See my comment in the Moscow Times here. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/preventing-new-gas-wars/398420.html