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Kvishkheti Railway workers ready to revolt

By Inga Kakulia
Friday, August 9
The railway employees of the Kvishkheti railway tunnel are asking for a 50% increase in salary. The new Union of Railways says Georgian railway workers have earned a legal right to strike and are ready to do just that. Negotiations between workers and employers on the construction of a railway tunnel in Kvishkheti have ended in vain. According to a trade union official, about sixty workers are on strike and will not return until their demands are met.

On August 2 of this year, 60 workers from the railway tunnel decided to strike against the working conditions and are refusing to go back to work. Now Trade Unions says they have 4,500 signatures, confirming that they have a legitimate right to strike in case of negotiation break down, which is what happened. According to Ilia Lezhava a trade union official, most of them either manage the machinery or are locksmiths, so in the case of the strike, the railway work will be significantly hindered.

Ilia Lezhava, says the Georgian Railway feels no responsibility when introducing the 23rd China Bureau of Labor as an employer for the railway workers. The workers are demanding that their daily salary increase from 20 GEL to 30 GEL.

This is not the first time that the employees working for the 23rd China Bureau Labor went on strike. Workers employed by the 23rd Bureau of China went on strike over the construction of the Kvishkheti-Zvare tunnel in 2016. Employees were demanding safe working environment and bearable working conditions. The two-week protest by 100 workers ended with the signing of labor contracts. A month later, workers said their employers had become aggressive. The New Railway Trade Union issued a statement on November 4, 2016, stating that employers physically abused the workers. According to their statement, 5 workers and 2 local residents were hospitalized as a result. In 2017, the Railway Unions claimed that the safety standards for tunnel construction had been violated. On July 29, 2017, part of the tunnel collapsed and two workers were injured in the accident.

Now Trade Unionists plan to get together on Saturday, August 10, to specify the time and place of the strike, and the administration will be informed about it three days before the strike, as required by the legislation.

Georgian Railways responded to a strike by the new Railway Union on August 4 and called the 50% hike in salaries “unrealistic” and “populist.” The Georgian Railways estimates that the new railway union has no legitimacy to speak on behalf of the full staff and, furthermore, to launch strikes, as the union only employs up to 400 members. Employees demand a 50% increase in salaries for those in fundamental positions, whose salary does not exceed 1500 GEL.

But negotiations between the trade union and the company representatives failed to launch. On July 9, to resolve the dispute, a new railway union, representing about 1,000 people employed by the railway, applied to the Ministry of IDPs from the Occupied Territories of Georgia to appoint a mediator in the process. On July 22, the Ministry appointed a mediator to initiate the conciliation procedure. The mediator met with trade union representatives but failed to meet with the Georgian Railway Representative, thereby terminating the mediation process on July 31. The workers then blocked the tunnel to prevent equipment from entering. Re-negotiations on the same day ended in vain, after which the strikers stopped the strike and left the company. According to the workers, company officials refused to raise their salaries. The 23rd China Railway Bureau suspended work on the site for several months. Part of the workers is out of work at this point.

Because of these unsuccessful mediation efforts, the new railway union plans to strike on August 10.

According to the non-governmental organization, EMC, Railway salaries increased at the end of 2014 as a result of the strike. And part of the employees hasn’t seen an increase in their salaries since 2012. One of the main concerns of employees is the unfair distribution of salaries. According to the new railway union, the salaries of the employees who provide the railway work vary from 300 to 1000 GEL, while the salaries of the administration employees can vary from 900 to 8000 GEL. Trade union officials say the administration’s staff is overwhelmed and does not meet real needs.

At the same time, the Railway Administration has announced that from March next year, the company plans to increase salaries by 10 %, of those whose get paid less than 1500 GEL and haven’t seen an increase in their salaries since 2014. But although most of the railway employees do not agree with this offer. Given the social situation in the country, employees say their earnings are much lower than in 2012, and a 10% increase cannot compensate for that loss.