After almost two weeks of strike of coal miners in Tkibuli, a tentative sign of possible compromise emerged but no agreement has been achieved yet as gap on key issue of wages still remains wide between protesters and a coal mining company.
Georgian Industrial Group (GIG), which operates two coal mines in Tkibuli through its subsidiary Saknakhshiri, was initially adamant in its refusal to consider increase of salaries, citing falling demand on coal and its low prices. But in last few days, specifically after a group of protesters briefly occupied Saknakhshiri’s office in Tkibuli, the company has been gradually making concessions.
Coal miners launched the strike in mid-February with a demand of 40% pay rise and improving working conditions.
When late on February 25 striking workers were told that GIG was only offering to “optimize” salary system within two months, which did not automatically mean a pay rise for all the workers, dozens of protesters, joined by activists from several leftist youth groups who arrived in Tkibuli to express solidarity with strikers, broke into the Saknakhshiri’s headquarters. Protesters left the building after the police arrived; no arrests were made.
Negotiations resumed next day and the company came up with a new proposal offering 5 percent pay rise in two months for about 1,100 miners.
The proposal was rejected by the striking workers.
One worker, whose monthly salary is GEL 600 (about USD 240), said 5 percent increase was a “mockery”, a sentiment voiced by many other strikers.
But protesters, at least some of them, also appeared ready to compromise; some striking workers were saying that the company should agree on at least 20% increase of wages, instead of initially demanded 40%, in order to convince them to return to work.
Early afternoon on February 27, GIG’s chief financial officer said that the company was ready to provide 5 percent pay rise in a month, instead of initially announced two months. Later the same day the company appeared ready to move increase forward to an earlier date.
On February 27 Deputy Minister of Labor, Health and Social Affairs, Zaza Sopromadze, arrived in Tkibuli to facilitate talks between striking workers and company management.
Late on Saturday evening he told Imedi TV that although there is no agreement yet, “dialogue was quite constructive” and the company is ready to increase wages by 5% starting from March 1.
He also said that according to the company’s proposal, pay rise will not apply to mid and senior level management in Saknakhshiri, which may make it possible to increase miners’ wages by more than 5 percent.
“Reciprocal steps should also be made by [miners who are on strike],” he said.
In a written statement released late on February 27, the strike committee said the company’s proposal to increase salaries by 5 percent immediately upon the halt of the strike is not acceptable as it is “not even close to what the strikers have been demanding” – 40 percent pay rise.
“Under the agreement, reached after the 2011 strike, the company has undertaken commitment on indexation of wages to match them to the annual inflation rate, as well as to improve working conditions, which remain unfulfilled,” reads the strike committee’s statement, distributed by Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC), Tbilisi-based rights group, which provides support to striking workers in Tkibuli.
The statement also says that the miners will hold a protest rally outside local government building in Tkibuli on February 28.
But when President Giorgi Margvelashvili’s human rights adviser, Kakha Kozhoridze, visited Tkibuli on February 26, he was told by the company executives that they do not deem 2011 memorandum, which among other issues also envisaged inflation-linked salary increases, to be legally binding.
Irakli Petriashvili, head of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC), which is not an organizer of the ongoing strike in Tkibuli, says that the current crisis could have been avoided if the company had observed all the clauses of the 2011 agreement. He also criticized the authorities for a failure to apply fully in practice all the available legislative mechanisms to foster social dialogue, among them trilateral commission and labor inspection, which he says remain only “on paper”.
He also says that in January, 2016 the GTUC sent a letter to the GIG, which owns coal mines in Tkibuli, asking for a dialogue to resolve the problems facing miners, but the company ignored it.
According to the GTUC head revival of 2011 agreement seems to be the most realistic way out from the existing situation in Tkibuli, which, if implemented, would mean about 14.2 percent pay rise for miners.