Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - Sixth Report


Memorandum submitted by Labour and Society International (LSI)


  1.  LSI works with the British and International trade union movements in developing countries and countries in transition. Using the expertise in trade union education developed in the UK over the last twenty years, our work with unions in these countries includes helping unions:

    —  to campaign for basic human rights—especially core labour standards;

    —  to develop their own trade union education programmes, including tutor training and materials development;

    —  to negotiate and campaign for improvements in health and safety; and

    —  to participate in civil society and democratic processes and institutions.

  2.  As our name implies, LSI seeks to link the trade union movement with other parts of civil society and we encourage a wider trade union agenda.

  3.  Our main partners are international trade secretariats (ITSs) which link together unions by industry. These are usually based in Geneva or Brussels.


  4.  LSI has been working in Transcaucasus and Central Asia since 1995, when we ran project workshops in Almaty and Baku with the International Federation of Chemical Energy Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM). We have since been the main implementing partner for the ICEM in a Tacis Democracy Project Trade Unions in Transition—Central Asia and the Caucasus. The project provided assistance in trade union education through tutor training and materials development. A trade union education manual, Challenges for Trade Unions in Transition, was written for the project. Project activities were in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

  5.  LSI is currently involved, as a sub-contractor, in another Tacis project on The Social Consequences of Privatisation and Restructuring in Kazakhstan. For that project, we have carried out research, written two manuals, and run courses. We are assisting in the establishment of a resource centre for Social partnership in Akmola. [1]

  6.  The main point we wish to make to the committee is that the trade union movement is an important player in at least some of the republics. Their contribution towards building pluralistic, open societies should be encouraged.


  7.  In Central Asia and the Transcaucasian republics, trade unions are the only mass institutions of the Soviet period to have survived. In some states they are unreformed—Armenia and Turkmenistan for example. But in others, such as Kazakstan, they are civil society and have a widely accepted legitimacy. They are the main lobby for veterans, pensioners, the disabled, the unemployed. In the more open states—recognising this is a relative term in the region—they call for social and economic policies which would protect the most vulnerable groups. They are the lobby for the poor.

  8.  The main issue facing unions was summed up very well by the UK ambassador in Baku:

    The size of the economic cake will certainly get bigger, but how that cake is divided is also important. We accept as inevitable that there will be some increase in inequality compared with Soviet days. What is hard to accept is the hijacking of assets and wealth by a few people while a large part of the country goes empty handed. [2]

  Trade unions in some countries in the region have become the focus for concern over inequality and corruption. In Kazakhstan, unions are in conflict with government over its failures in policy for vulnerable groups. They have participated in demonstrations in Almaty. But at the same time, unions have tried to avoid their position being seen as overtly hostile towards the President.

  9.  In Azerbaijan, union leaders have tended to support President Aliyev, but more for the reason that he has brought stability than because they like his economic and social policies. But it is important to emphasis that individual union members can and do openly support other parties.

  10.  On the dissolution of the USSR, successor republics joined the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and could chose which ILO conventions to ratify. There is a wide variation between Kazakhstan, which has ratified only two, and Azerbaijan which has ratified 50.


  11.  The problems for unions in Transcaucasus and Central Asia are similar to those in other parts of the former Soviet Union. Unions have lost their role in the old system of administering welfare and safety and struggle to find a new one, in a context of drastic economic free fall. The demolition of the cradle to the grave welfare system, the months of unpaid wages, the unemployment—unions have grappled with problems at the same time as both their ideology and structural underpinnings have been swept away.

  12.  Unions have prioritised preserving the "social sphere" as enterprises are privatised. Western consultants working for the EBRD, World Bank etc have consistently advised that enterprises give up their kindergartens, medical facilities etc before they are privatised.

  13.  The result has been a very substantial shift away from socialised care to individualised care—which in practise has meant womens' unpaid labour has increased.


  14.  Central Asian unions have been cut off from Moscow, where the centralised All Union Council of Trade Unions had a number of specialised institutes which provided support. Unions own resource base is extremely poor. They have had to downsize and salaries are very low.

  15.  The western based international trade union movement initially focussed more on the Russian Federation and Central Europe, with the exception of the International Federation of Chemical Energy Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) a Brussels based international trade secretariat.

  16.  The ICEM welcomed unions from the former Soviet Union to join it, but only as "transitional members" until they could establish their democratic credentials and independence. Both government and managerial control had to be removed from the unions' constitutions and in practise. They were also obliged to cut all links with the old Soviet era international trade union structures which have been kept alive with funding from Libya and Syria. The ICEM has now accepted a number of transitional unions from the region into full membership, which is an indication of the fact that these unions really have changed.

  17.  In Azerbaijan, more than half of the unions in the national confederation[3] are affiliates of the ICEM and they have clearly had an influence on it. The Azerbaijan trade union confederation has developed links with the ICFTU. It has promoted a trade union bank (not dissimilar to Unity Trust, the UK's union based bank). Unions have been directly involved in welfare work for the internal refugees and also sought to establish a network of CAB style advice centres.

  18.  The "transitional" affiliates have been desperate for help in understanding how to deal with western multinationals, particularly in the energy sector, and how to set up new training systems. British trade union education methods and expertise, applied appropriately and sensitively, have been well received in the three countries where we have worked.


  19.  One development worth noting is the growth of enterprise based structures, where the enterprise has been bought out by foreign companies. This seems to be marked in Kazakhstan.

  20.  Foreign owners pay their workers on time and morale is better. Without cutting their links with their old unions, in a number of instances de facto new union structures have developed. For example, the Committee of the Union at Philip Morris/Almaty Tobacco Company, Kazakhstan, now relates directly to the Federation of unions, not the Agricultural Workers Unions (AGRO PROM) which they were in before.


  21.  Unions face a range of issues where they need assistance:

    —  Trade union rights. The multinationals in Azerbaijan, for example, do not recognise the Oil and Gas Workers Union. This is clearly with government approval or connivance.

    —  Collective bargaining. As previous ways of determining wages and benefits—ministerial regulation—have disappeared, unions need to develop collective bargaining skills.

    —  Sustaining the social safety net; unions are still trying to do this, though usually excluded from all policy discussions by their governments and multilateral and bi-lateral donors.

    —  Trying to get an input into the reform process—privatisation, restructuring—as with the previous point, there is a democratic deficit.

    —  Problems of women workers. The "Communism is over, so women can go back to the home" attitude has emerged among employers and governments. The formal equality of the old USSR has been abandoned. Women have been the first to be made redundant.

    —  Occupational safety health and the environment. Where industry is functioning, it is still operating well below international standards.

    —  Isolation. The region is really cut off. Knowledge of trends and issues elsewhere is very low.

    —  Restructuring. The national centres have in some cases, such as the Kazaks, recognised the need to restructure, but admit the need for outside help to do so.


  22.  We would ask the committee to consider these points.

    —  The UK should recognise the role that trade unions could play in helping in the development of robust civil societies and democracy in the region.

    —  Trade unions should receive assistance in the form of training and advice to help them adapt to the very rapid changes in the region.

    —  The UK should try to use its influence within multilateral agencies to ensure that there is full involvement of trade unions, as social partners, in social planning and economic restructuring

April 1999

1   The manuals were on Collective Bargaining with an emphasis on Protecting the Social Sphere and on Tripartism and Social Partnership. Back

2   Address by HE Mr Roger Thomas at the Caspian Infrastructure Exhibition and Conference, Baku 21-24 October 1997. Back

3   The equivalent of the TUC. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 27 July 1999