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A sustained crackdown on independent worker organising – Kazakhstan, a case study

Article by Mihra Rittmann

July 22, 2021

A sustained crackdown on independent worker organising – Kazakhstan, a case study

Ten years ago this summer, hundreds of oil workers in western Kazakhstan were in the midst of a stand-off with their employers in one of longest and most consequential strikes in Kazakhstan’s recent history. The unresolved seven-month strike ended in bloodshed in mid-December 2011, when police and government troops opened fire on workers and others, killing at least 12 people. In the months following, authorities put dozens on trial, including some of the most outspoken worker activists. The Government adopted a new repressive trade union law and a new labour code, in June 2014 and November 2015 respectively, both of which restricted workers’ right to organise, bargain collectively, and to strike. Since then, Kazakh authorities have engaged in a concerted crackdown on independent labour organising, leaving trade union activists convicted on politically motivated charges and banned from engaging in trade union activities, and independent trade unions and confederations shuttered or suspended.


This essay will briefly cover what happened in Zhanaozen in summer 2011, detail the ensuing crackdown on independent labour organising that resulted in all but decimating Kazakhstan’s independent trade unions, and conclude by offering recommendations on what the Kazakh Government should do moving forward.


2011 oil workers’ strike

Over two thousand oil workers in three separate companies in western Kazakhstan put down their tools in May 2011 calling for better pay and working conditions.[1] The three strikes lasted between one and a half and seven months. Local courts ruled that the strikes were illegal because they began spontaneously (outside of the legal framework for holding strikes), and authorities brought administrative charges against the people they considered to be the leaders of the strikes. Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented how both companies and Kazakh authorities violated both international labour and human rights law in response to legitimate union activity;[2] and how a union lawyer was wrongfully imprisoned for six years on overbroad criminal charges of “inciting social discord” for speaking to workers about wage disparities.[3]


Despite the Government’s attempts to break the strikes and the mass dismissals of striking workers by companies, hundreds of workers persisted with their demands. Kazakhstan’s longest lasting strike ultimately came to an end on December 16th 2011, when clashes broke out in Zhanaozen’s central square, and police and government security forces responded by opening fire on oil workers and others who had gathered there. In total, at least 12 people were killed and hundreds were wounded, according to official figures. Three other individuals died in the violence, two as a result of bodily injuries and one in a related fire, and dozens of police were wounded in the clashes, according to the prosecutor general’s office.[4]


HRW documented serious and credible allegations of ill-treatment and torture of people in Zhanaozen in the immediate aftermath of the violence, including the death of a 50-year-old man after he apparently sustained injuries in police custody.[5] In the months following, authorities arrested and prosecuted outspoken oil workers and others for instigating the violence and convicted almost all 37 people who had been put on trial, despite their serious allegations of torture by law enforcement officers apparently to coerce testimony against themselves or others.[6] Authorities also prosecuted political opposition figures and shut down independent and opposition media in the months that followed.[7]


The events prompted the highest levels of government, including Kazakhstan’s president, to turn their attention to labour relations. But instead of amending existing legislation to protect workers’ rights to unionise and collectively bargain, in accordance with international labour and human rights standards, Kazakh authorities penalised workers for the unrest and took steps to tighten government controls over trade union activity. Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s then-president, in public comments he gave in July 2012 called people who provoke social and labour conflicts “provocateurs and parasites” and instructed legislators to draft a new trade union law.[8] In June 2014, a new and more restrictive trade union law was adopted, which opened the door to a crackdown on independent labour organising.[9]


Decimating Kazakhstan’s independent trade unions

The 2014 trade union law restricted the ability of workers to organise and form trade unions and ensured that Kazakh authorities had even greater influence over worker organising. From then on, all existing trade unions had to re-register with the Justice Ministry within one year of the law’s adoption in accordance with a new and burdensome two-step registration process. The law also imposed a mandatory affiliation requirement, obligating local trade unions to affiliate with an industrial union, and industrial unions to affiliate with a higher-tier trade union body, such as a confederation or federation of trade unions. The mandatory affiliation requirement blatantly violated international labour rights standards protecting the right of trade unions to freely determine their structures.[10]


The registration requirements made it especially difficult for independent trade unions in Kazakhstan, with fewer members overall, to re-register. The Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KSPK), the country’s largest independent national-tier trade union, was unable to meet the geographical and representational requirements of the law. The Justice Ministry denied KSPK re-registration, despite their multiple good-faith attempts.[11] Larisa Kharkova, KSPK president, told HRW in 2016 that almost without exception, not a single industrial-tier trade union that intended to affiliate with KSPK was able to re-register in the stipulated one-year time frame.[12]


KSPK then sought to register under a new name: Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of the Republic of Kazakhstan (KNPRK). In February 2016, KNPRK successfully completed the first step in the process. To complete the registration process, KNPRK had still to confirm its status as a national-tier trade union. Burdensome registration requirements and the limited timeframe all but ensured that KNPRK and its lower tier affiliates, who were also struggling to comply with the new registration requirements, would be unable to comply with the law.


In December 2016, the Justice Ministry moved to liquidate KNPRK for non-compliance with the country’s restrictive trade union law, along with three of its affiliated industrial trade unions representing medical workers, domestic workers, and mine workers. On January 4th 2017, an economic court in Shymkent, a city in southern Kazakhstan, ordered the permanent closure of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan.[13] The Government also banned the three affiliated industrial unions.


Since its forced closure, KNPRK has tried several additional times to register with the Justice Ministry, to no avail.


Targeting labour activists with politically motivated criminal cases

As the Justice Ministry moved to permanently shutter independent trade union bodies, the authorities also targeted independent and outspoken trade union leaders, including the head of KNPRK, Larisa Kharkova, and two others who had participated in protests against KNPRK’s forced closure, Amin Eleusinov and Nurbek Kushakbaev, with politically motivated criminal cases.


On April 7th 2017 Kushakbaev was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for the “crime” of calling on workers to carry out a strike that had been declared illegal in court.[14] He was also ordered to pay material damages of US$80,000 and subjected to a two-year ban engaging in trade union activities. On May 16th 2017, another Kazakh court sentenced the trade union leader Amin Eleusinov to two years in prison on politically motivated embezzlement charges.[15] The court banned him from engaging in trade union activities for five years and required him to pay US$26,300 in damages.


A Shymkent court on July 25th 2017, convicted Larisa Kharkova, head of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, of abuse of office.[16] She was sentenced to restrictions on her freedom of movement, 400 hours of community service, and banned from holding a leadership position in any non-governmental organisation, including trade unions, for five years.


Authorities in Kazakhstan also targeted the trade union leader Erlan Baltabay, who, following his colleagues’ arrests and trials, assumed a more outspoken position on labour rights issues in Kazakhstan.[17] On July 17th 2019, a Shymkent court convicted Baltabay on politically motivated charges of misappropriating union funds and sentenced him to seven years in prison and banned him from engaging in civic activities, including trade union activism, for seven years.[18] Although he was released by presidential pardon in August 2019, he was sentenced to five months in prison in October 2019 for failing to pay the required fine. He remains banned from trade union activities.


An international response

The adoption and implementation of Kazakhstan’s restrictive trade union law in 2014, along with the authorities’ concerted efforts in subsequent years to suppress independent trade union organising, garnered increasing international attention, especially from the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Since 2015, Kazakhstan has been repeatedly singled out for review – and subsequently reprimanded – by the Committee on the Application of Standards, the body at the ILO tasked with reviewing states’ compliance with ILO Conventions. This committee is a tripartite body of governments, trade unions, and employers’ organisations that annually reviews some of the most serious cases of noncompliance with international labour standards, which indicates how seriously concerned some of Kazakhstan’s international partners are about labour rights violations in the country.


The significant, sustained, and negative international attention to Kazakhstan’s labour rights record finally pushed Kazakhstan to address some of the criticisms regarding its labour rights record. In May 2018, Kazakhstan accepted a high-level ILO monitoring mission, during which it pledged to reform the trade union law and some other problematic labour legislation. Two years later, in May 2020, Kazakhstan adopted promised amendments to the trade union law that helped to improve the regulatory framework for registering trade unions and lifted the mandatory affiliation requirement.[19]


While amendments helped to address some of the labour rights concerns in legislation, Kazakh authorities’ hostility to independent worker organising persists. On February 5th 2021, the Specialised Interdistrict Economic Court in Shymkent suspended the independent Industrial Trade Union of Fuel and Energy Workers (ITUFEW) for six months for allegedly failing to register in accordance with Kazakhstan’s trade union law, dealing another serious blow to freedom of association and the right of workers to organise.[20] The industrial trade union was one of the few independent trade unions still operating in Kazakhstan.


Do workers in Kazakhstan have the right to strike?

While the right to strike is guaranteed in Kazakhstan’s Constitution and Labour Code, in reality, workers must exhaust cumbersome and lengthy mediation procedures before they can consider declaring a strike, making it difficult, and in some instances, impossible, for workers to hold a legal strike.[21] Furthermore, in 2014, Kazakhstan introduced criminal sanctions for actions provoking workers to continue a strike declared illegal by a court (Criminal Code article 402). In May 2020, Kazakhstan reduced maximum sanctions for the offense from a three-year prison sentence to a fine.


For many years, Kazakhstan also imposed a blanket ban on strikes by workers employed in “hazardous production facilities,” which includes the entirety of the oil and gas sector, as well as on “railway transport and civil aviation workers, medical workers, and service providers (including workers in public transport, water supply, electricity, heat, and communications).” Following sustained pressure from the ILO, in May 2020 Kazakhstan’s Labour Code was amended to allow service providers and oil and gas workers to hold strikes, provided they ensure minimum or uninterrupted services.[22]


Given the obstacles to staging legal strikes, workers in practice resort to spontaneous, short-term industrial actions, sidestepping burdensome collective bargaining procedures, to make their grievances known. Doing so exposes them to risk of dismissal, as well as possible administrative or criminal prosecution. According to media reports, in February 2021 over a dozen workers were dismissed from an oil company in western Kazakhstan after they participated in a strike demanding higher wages.[23] In April 2021, oil workers who staged a strike in Zhanaozen were informed by their employer that the strike was “illegal” and told they must come back to work.[24]


Under international human rights law, any penalties for participating in an illegal strike should be proportionate to the offense or fault committed. The ILO has made clear that sanctions for participating in strikes are acceptable only when national law itself is consistent with international standards on freedom of association, which is not the case in Kazakhstan.[25]


Worker mobilising – new hope?

Despite all these challenges, workers in Kazakhstan continue mobilising. Since the start of 2021, there have been increasing media reports of small worker collectives in Kazakhstan independently staging industrial actions and then organising and announcing their intent to form trade unions.


In March, striking oil workers in the Aktobe region in western Kazakhstan voted to form a new trade union to protect their interests.[26] In May, construction workers in Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan, announced that they had registered a new trade union, ‘Umit’. Their elected union leader, Kairat Aydar, told Radio Azattyk that the construction workers had decided to unionise after striking in December 2020 against dangerous working conditions.[27] In Almaty, food delivery couriers, many of whom are contract workers for food delivery apps, decided to unionise after striking against low pay and worker dismissal.[28]


These worker initiatives to organise and unionise are especially important against the backdrop of authorities’ efforts to stifle and suppress independent trade union organising in Kazakhstan. It is critical that neither the companies that employ the workers, nor the Kazakh authorities, interfere in their efforts, but allow workers to organise and register their trade unions, and that they be allowed to operate without harassment or retaliation.



While the Kazakh Government’s sustained attacks on independent labour organising over the last ten years is a deep stain on the country’s human rights record, there is room for cautious optimism. Workers in disparate parts of the country have independently organised in recent months in defence of their rights. The long-term criticism of Kazakhstan’s restrictive trade union law by the ILO and local and international trade union and human rights bodies has already pushed Kazakhstan into reforming the trade union law and introducing a number of other positive legislative changes.


And the pressure on Kazakhstan is not letting up. At this year’s International Labour Conference, the Committee on the Application of Standards issued its most extensive and strongly worded conclusions and recommendations on Kazakhstan yet. In addition, the committee required the Kazakh Government to accept a direct contacts mission by the ILO to Kazakhstan to assess the situation and for the Kazakh Government to report back to the committee before next year’s conference on “measures taken… to comply with the Convention.”[29]


Kazakhstan needs to start implementing meaningful labour rights reforms, which are essential to protect workers from rights abuses. Kazakhstan’s international partners, including the European Union (and its member states), the United Kingdom, and the United States, can support Kazakhstan in these efforts by raising concerns about ongoing labour rights abuses in the country, and by calling on the Kazakh government to respect and uphold international labour rights standards.[30]


HRW urges the Kazakh Government to take the following steps to bring Kazakh law closer to international human rights standards and improve the environment for independent trade union organising and association:


  • Comply fully with the conclusions adopted in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2021 by the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards;
  • Cease the harassment of independent trade union activists, including by lifting restrictions on trade union activism of Larisa Kharkova, Amin Eleusinov, and Erlan Baltabay;
  • Set aside the court-ordered closure of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, and the six-month suspension of the Industrial Trade Union of Fuel and Energy Workers, and allow the KNPRK and ITUFEW to register and operate without interference;
  • Repeal Criminal Code article 402 criminalising “calling on workers to participate in a strike that has been found illegal by a court,” as incompatible with the right to freedom of association, the right to organise, and the right to strike.


Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher, leads Human Rights Watch’s work on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, covering a wide range of human rights issues including freedom of assembly, association, and speech. In recent years Rittmann has researched and written reports on labor and disability rights in Kazakhstan. She previously lived and worked in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, documenting the aftermath of the June 2010 ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan and the persecution of Uzbekistan’s human rights defenders. Before she joined Human Rights Watch, Rittmann spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar in Moscow, collecting oral histories from former political prisoners of the Gulag, the Soviet prison camp system. Rittmann holds a master’s in human rights from the University of Essex and is a graduate of the University of Chicago. She speaks Russian.


Image by Francisco Anzola under (CC).


[1] Rittmann, Mihra, Striking Oil, Striking Workers: Violations of Labour Rights in Kazakhstan’s Oil Sector, HRW, September 2012,

[2] Ibid.

[3] HRW, Kazakhstan: Appeals Hearing Should Vindicate Labour Rights, September 2011,

[4] “Text of the speech of Nurdaulet Suindikov, the official representative of the Prosecutor General of the Republic of Kazakhstan” (“Текст выступления официального представителя Генеральной прокуратуры Республики Казахстан Суиндикова Нурдаулета”), Prosecutor General of the Republic of Kazakhstan, February 2012,

[5] HRW, Kazakhstan: Protect Detainees from Torture and Ill-treatment, December 2011, and HRW, Kazakhstan: Detainee Dies After Police Beating, December 2012

[6] HRW, Kazakhstan: Oil Workers Convicted in Flawed Trial, June 2012,

[7] HRW, Kazakhstan: Opposition Leader Jailed, October 2012,, and Human Rights Watch, Kazakhstan: Growing Crackdown On Free Speech, December 2012,

[8] “It is necessary to establish legal responsibility for provoking labour conflicts – Nazarbayev” [“Нужно установить правовую ответственность за провоцирование трудовых конфликтов – Назарбаев”]., June 2012,

[9] Rittmann, Mihra, We are Not the Enemy, Violations of Workers Rights in Kazakhstan, November 2016,

[10] ILO Convention 87 stipulates laws should not “unduly affect organisational structure and composition of the unions.” ILO Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining Training Sheet (copy on file with Human Rights Watch).

[11] See: HRW Report, We are Not the Enemy, Violations of Workers Rights in Kazakhstan, Restrictions on Freedom of Association and the Right to Organize, which details Kazakhstan’s restrictive new trade union law,

[12] HRW interview with Larisa Kharkova, April 2016.

[13] HRW, Kazakhstan: Trade Union Shut Down, January 2017,

[14] HRW, Kazakhstan: Union Leader Jailed, April 2017,

[15] HRW, Kazakhstan: Trade Union Leader Jailed, May 2017,

[16] HRW, Kazakhstan: Trade Union Leader Convicted, July 2017,

[17] Erlan Baltabay spoke on behalf of KNPRK during the 2017 review of Kazakhstan by the International Labour Organisation’s Committee on the Application of Standards in Geneva, Switzerland in June, 2017.

[18] HRW, Kazakhstan: Union Leader Jailed, July 2019,

[19] HRW, Kazakhstan Adopts Long Promised Amendments to the Trade Union Law, December 2020,

[20] HRW, Kazakhstan: Independent Union Under Threat of Suspension, January 2021,

[21] Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, art. 24, pt. 3; Kazakhstan Labour Code, art. 171.

[22] Kazakhstan Labour Code, art. 176, 2-1.

[23] Zhursin, Zhanagul and Dilara Isa, “Workers are increasingly going on strike. What does it mean?” [Работники всё чаще выходят на забастовки. О чём это говорит?], Radio Azattyk, February 2021,

[24] Toiken, Saniyash, “The company proposed to striking workers in Zhanaozen to go back to work” [Бастующим в Жанаозене работникам компания предложила возобновить работы], April 2021,

[25] The CEACR has stated that “sanctions for strike action, including dismissals, should be possible only where strike prohibitions are in conformity with the principles of freedom of association.” CEACR: Direct Request concerning Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No 87) Kazakhstan (ratification: 2000), adopted 2003, published 92nd ILC session (2004),

[26] Zhursin, Zhanagul, “Striking workers at KMK Munai form new union and end strike” [Бастовавшие рабочие «КМК Мунай» сформировали новый профсоюз и прекратили забастовку], Radio Azattyk, March 2021,

[27] Zhoyamergen, Orken, “Capital builders registered a trade union to protect their rights” [Столичные строители зарегистрировали профсоюз для защиты своих прав], Radio Azattyk, May 2021,

[28] Mazorenko, Dmitriy, Kazakhstani couriers are pushing back against the gig economy, Open Democracy, June 2021, See also: Mazorenko, Dmitriy, “Couriers of all Kazakhstani food delivery services create a union” [Курьеры всех казахстанских сервисов доставки еды создают профсоюз],, May 2021,

[29] Committee on the Application of Standards, International Labour Conference, 109th Session, Geneva 2021, CAN/PV.CCL, June 2021,—ed_norm/—relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_804447.pdf. See also: HRW, ILO Slams Kazakhstan for Longstanding Labour Rights Abuses, June 2021,

[30] The European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, all expressed concern about the lack of meaningful progress on labour rights in Kazakhstan during the June 2021 ILO Committee on the Application of Standard’s review of Kazakhstan. Previously, the European Parliament has twice endorsed the ILO’s conclusions. See:

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