Freedom of association of trade unions in modern Russia: practice and challenges.

Julia Ostrovskaya is a lawyer and master of political science. PhD student, Department of theory and history of State and Law, National Research University Higher School of Economics (Moscow).

Program Director at Center for Social and Labor Rights.

Center for Social and Labor Rights (CSLR) is a Russian non-profit NGO for promotion, compliance and protection of social and labour rights. CSLR cooperate with Russian and international trade unions, NGOs, government agencies, expert communities. 

Russia’s laws and Constitution guarantee freedom of association, including the right to form trade unions for advancing workers’ interests and the freedom to set up and run non-governmental associations.

Russia ratified the ILO’s fundamental Conventions No. 87 and No. 98 concerning freedom of association and collective bargaining and the right of all workers and entrepreneurs to form and join organizations without previous authorization, thereby making a commitment to respect the said principles and rights.

However, throughout Russia’s modern history, trade unions have faced problems with carrying out their daily activities, since despite recognizing the rights stipulated in the said ILO conventions, Russia has failed to provide adequate mechanisms supporting their implementation.

Unlike many European countries in which trade unions emerged and developed in a consistent manner over time, Russia’s trade union movement has had an unusual history.

In the Soviet period, the government suppressed any attempts at worker solidarity actions or to create independent organizations. It was only at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s that Russia saw a revival of the labor movement and independent grassroots unions, marked by mass strikes, rallies and speeches which contributed greatly to the overall democratization of society.

In the post-Soviet era, trade union roles and objectives went through a major revision, but are still the most numerous of nongovernmental entities in Russia. A particularly good example is the Russian Confederation of Labour, (KTR), a national association established in 1995, which brought together the country’s independent unions. KTR’s membership includes more than 20 national and interregional trade unions.

Like other nongovernmental organizations in Russia, independent unions face difficulties, such as undue employer and state interference in union activity, barriers to collective bargaining, discrimination against union members, limited opportunities to set up and register new organizations, disproportionate restrictions on the right to strike, and sometimes pressure, persecution, criminal charges and violent attacks against trade unionists.

The general overview of the situation in the field of freedom of association in Russia on the basis of monitoring 2015 – 2018 years.

In what follows a compilation of data that illustrate the practical application of the principles of freedom of association in Russia from 2015 to 2018.

The information collected in the course of the monitoring infringements of trade union rights and freedom of association has been compiled and analysed by the Centre for Social and Labour Rights, which is an independent non-profit organisation, and by the Confederation of Labour of Russia, which is a nationwide Russian trade union association.

Over the duration of the monitoring, information on165 instances of infringement of trade union rights have been analysed.

All of this information on infringements has been systematically classified (based on provisions of the fundamental ILO Conventions) into five basic categories:

•           Infringements of trade union rights and civil freedoms;

•           Infringements of the ILO Convention concerning Freedom of Association and the Right to Organise, 1948 (No. 87);

•           Infringements of the ILO Convention concerning the Application of the Principles of the Right to Organise and to Bargain Collectively, 1949 (No. 98);

•           Infringements of the ILO Convention concerning Protection and Facilities to be Afforded to Workers’ Representatives in the Undertaking, 1971 (No. 135);

•           Infringements of the right to provide consultations.

Trade union associations have gathered information on infringements that fit into each of the five categories listed above. This outcome testifies to the fact that, despite official declarations of the importance of the rights stipulated in these Conventions, problems in ensuring the exercise or those rights have not been solved in practice.

Trade union organisations have provided information testifying to the existence of an extremely broad spectrum of problems with exercising their right to freedom of association.

Trade unions also face obstacles to their everyday operations. There are problems with restrictions in creating and registering organisations; interference by employers and others in trade union activities; restrictions on conducting collective bargaining; discrimination against trade union members; and unreasonable limitations on the right to strike.

As one way of characterizing the overall situation, there are reports of serious pressure and persecution including even imprisonment and physical violence against trade union activists along with attempts to dissolve trade unions.

The most common infringements relate to ILO Convention No. 98, which primarily concerns discrimination against trade unions. There are information on such as firings of trade union activists, illegal transfer to other jobs and layoffs, imposition of disciplinary fines and partial withholding of wages, pressuring trade union members and other forms of discrimination. These instances are typically actions taken by employers against trade union officers and members either for starting up a trade union, for being a member or for involvement in trade union activities. Such instances of interference with the activities of trade unions constitute about one third of all reports.

This suggests that two forms of interference must be eliminated: first, interference in the operations of these organisations on the part of government agencies; and, second, interference by employer organisations with the creation and functioning of workers’ organisations. The prevalence of these instances indicates a need to take steps that would promptly and effectively discourage their recurrence.

In addition, there are frequent references to infringements of the right to collective bargaining as it is envisaged in Convention No. 98. Acknowledgement of the right to collective bargaining is crucial to the representation of collective interests. However, trade unions are in practice deprived of this fundamental right; in extreme cases, trade union activists may be subjected to threats and criminal prosecution for exercising that right.

Infringements of trade union rights and civil freedoms are the second most frequently encountered category. These infringements involve actions of law enforcement agencies; in particular, court judgments against trade union leaders and arrests of trade union activists;  infringements of the right to safety and to physical security for trade union members. Considering these infringements is particularly important because in exercise of the principle of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining a great deal hinges on observance of fundamental civil freedoms including the right to personal freedom and security, freedom of conviction and speech, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair and impartial hearing before an independent judiciary, and protection of trade union property. The information available indicates that at present various forms of serious infringement of civil rights and freedoms are taking place.

The category of infringements next by frequency concerns infringements of ILO Convention No. 87. There were infringements of the right to freely form trade unions and enrol in them as stipulated in their charters; of the right of trade unions to freely organize their activities and establish a programme for action; and of the right to strike. Clearly, these infringements are in like degree detrimental and require external application of protection against interference with trade union activities.

Infringements of the provisions of ILO Convention No. 135 were reported including refusal of employers to provide a space for holding trade union meetings or a place for posting trade union informational materials. Trade union representatives were barred from workplaces (for example, by revoking the permit to enter an enterprise’s premises), and collection of trade union dues was hindered along with other infringements.

 The infringements of the right to consultation occurred in connection with refusal by an employer to consult with a trade union during staff cutbacks. Although this kind of infringement is not frequent, it demands attention and a solution just as much as the others.

It should be noted that more than half of the all infringements were systematic in nature.

The next important aspect is analysis of the geographic distribution of infringements. Information on infringements has come in from all the various districts in the Russian Federation, with the exception of the North Caucasus Federal District.

The monitoring also analysed information on the outcomes of infringements, specifically whether infringement of rights had ceased and whether trade union members continued working for a particular employer.

During the monitoring period most infringements had not ceased. In a number of instances that was because the trade union or representatives had not turned to any authorities in order to correct the situation. In other cases, turning to the authorities had been futile, as when turning to the State Labour Inspectorate had no effect on resolving the situation.

That indicates that the capacity to effectively settle labour conflicts that arise from infringements of the principle of freedom of association is inadequate and that these infringements in turn may lead to further opposition instead of contributing to an environment of social dialogue and negotiations.

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