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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Working Man's Blues

A few months back, the Mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava had a little celebration in Vake Park to honor the city's garbage men by awarding them with applause and new uniforms. One sanitation engineer, however, was not there. He did not want to spend the only day off he had had in months to hang out in the park with a bunch of garbage men, so he came to our house.

"We work seven days a week now," he said. "If anybody complains, they'll lose their job."

Before our friend landed this job, he worked at a tractor factory where he was told he would have to work one probationary month free of pay. Theoretically, the owner could get free labor this way, by firing each candidate at the end of each month.

As the son of a UFCW Local 101 man, I had a personal interest to find out if there's any laws protecting workers in Georgia. And the answer is, not really.

In 2006, Georgia amended their Soviet era labor code into a neo-liberal code that is designed to protect "employer's rights," which sounds kind of funny, as how often has an employer had to worry about his rights in the past 90 years?

Technically, workers have every right to engage in collective bargaining and organize, and the constitution protects citizens from discrimination. Yet there is a gaping hole in the labor code that allows an employer to terminate a contract without stating a reason. So it's against the law to say "I'm firing you because you are a union agitator." All the employer must remember is to drop the subordinate clause when dismissing someone.

The government says with a straight face that the problem isn't with the code, it's that workers don't know their rights. Business leaders say that protecting this right will scare investors away from Georgia, which suffers from something like 30% employment. "The economy will regulate itself if we let it," they say. But these business leaders live in a kind of bubble because they must compete for skilled labor and have to offer good salaries and benefits to their employees. But what of the other reality where unskilled laborers must silently compete for crumbs 7 days a week?

Georgia's Ministry of Economic Development (MED) boasts that according to The Heritage Foundation, Georgia ranks 99.4% in labor freedom, which sounds pretty damn good, but what does it mean?

Well, if you're an investor it means there are "highly flexible labor regulations" where the "rules on the number of work hours are very flexible. The non-salary cost of employing a worker can be moderate, and dismissing a redundant employee is costless."

To the worker, 99.4% labor freedom sounds a bit like serfdom, but then the Heritage Foundation is a neo-con think tank whose mission is to "formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense."

Georgian workers aren't demanding more pay and benefits (in some cases they are asking for the back-pay they're owed, but many are afraid to do that for fear of losing their jobs). What they want is their constitutional right of non-discrimination to be protected in the labor code too. Meanwhile, all my friend the sanitation engineer wants is a day off from time to time.

My labor story for is HERE.


Anonymous said...

Nothing strange that Saakashvili uses the reports of The Heritage Foundation, the opinion of Steve Forbes or Richard Allen(assistant to Ronald Reagan for national security matters) are well known to him. But also he could use those of Sun Myung Moon (Moonies), I am sure that they would give the president greater charisma. But second thought, perhaps Saakashvili already know them.

"birds of a feather flock together"

Juanjo, from Warsaw.