Ask anyone about their working conditions in Armenia and they will tell you their rights are not protected, even if they have minimal knowledge of those rights. Indeed, labor rights are the least protected rights in the country. Year after year international reports raise red flags about the lack of enforcement of effective labor standards in both the public and private sectors. One reason for such disregard of labor rights protection is considered to be high unemployment in the country. Other reasons include inadequate labor inspection management, lack of independent trade unions and overloaded administrative courts unable to address cases as soon as they are launched.
In light of recent political shifts in Armenia, expectations are high in terms of ending a number of ills society has been plagued with in past decades. Lack of protection in the workplace was one of the many shortcomings alongside corruption, judicial bias, and inequality awaiting remedies. Yet, no major change or reform has been implemented in this area nor is there any hint that a process is pending. From time to time news articles are published about government plans to either create a new state labor inspection agency or expand the functions of the existing one that merged with the health inspection agency back in 2013. However, the absence of an independent inspection body, as well as the continuous violation of rights have left little space to hope for change.
There was much criticism when the health and labor inspection agencies were joined; there had been no justification for this merger and the agency’s employees had not participated in the discussions for this reform. Some experts’ explanation for this hasty decision was that the World Bank had pressured the Armenian government to implement this merger to create a more conducive atmosphere for businesses. Meanwhile, this led to curbing the labor agency’s functions, limiting it to inspecting occupational health and safety issues mostly. As a result, the number of inspectors and inspections were reduced significantly.
Yet, in circumstances where investors’ interests continue to be the prevailing concern for the government, even after the revolution, it is interesting to observe two recent developments in the field of labor rights. In June 2018, the amendments to the Labor Code was removed from the government’s agenda. The draft was proposed by the previous cabinet for the purpose of easing the administrative burden on businesses. One of the controversial aspects of the amendment was that it proposed to remove a number of regulations relating to overtime work and the subsequent compensation it requires. Based on the draft, this and several other points were to be determined based on negotiations between the employer and employee on a case-by-case scenario. However, there was much criticism, taking into account the privileged status employers enjoy in Armenia - employees, many of whom are not fully acquainted with the laws protecting their rights, would not be in a position to disagree with what was being offered even while their rights were potentially being violated. Other proposals in the draft law included the removal of a list of particularly difficult and dangerous jobs, for which additional compensation or holidays is required. After a year of much discussions, criticism, articles and interviews by lawyers and civil society regarding these proposed changes, the amendments to the Labor Code were eventually pushed off the agenda.
The other interesting development was amendments proposed to the law on Trade Unions by the Prosperous Armenia Party in July 2018. They proposed fundamentally changing how trade unions would be formed in Armenia. According to this proposal, workers from different sectors would be able to unite and form unions. However, this would completely go against the essence of trade unions, the goal of which is to let specialists and workers from similar fields of work unite - teachers having their own unions, IT specialists their own, etc. The Union of State Service Employees of Armenia published a statement in August, in which it claimed that while the authors of the draft might assume that this new way of forming trade unions would allow for more competition among unions and hence better protection, however, trade unions are based not on competition, but on union and solidarity, and any change in their structure would only further weaken them. Additionally, the Union expressed its concern that this proposal would only serve the interests of big capitalists in Armenia - influential people who have many businesses across different industries will be able to organize their employees in such a way that would allow them to pursue various goals, including political pressure such as intimidating and ensuring votes during elections.
Interestingly, the bill of amendments on Trade Unions was not adopted during the second reading in parliament in November 2018. This was not because it was voted down but rather because the Republican Party boycotted the parliamentary session, thus not voting at all. The Yelk Bloc voted in favor of the amendments, despite the fact, as the Union of State Service Employees had noted in their statement, this draft law could have undermined fair election processes. This is a contradictory stance for the political group that led the revolution and won the parliamentary elections in December 2018. This may be a sign that they have no clear position on this issue or in the worst case scenario, labor rights are not an immediate priority for them.
Consequently, civil society has a lot of work ahead and the success of the revolution will greatly depend on them continuously pressuring the government. One such civil initiative, the Protection of Labor Rights Civil Initiative, had prepared a list of suggestions back in May 2018, which raised some urgent issues. The group has a social media platform, where people can post information regarding labor issues, as well as ask for advice regarding their own labor rights. The group’s suggestions that were presented to the new government were based not only on issues raised by civil society, but also based on consultancy requests they had been receiving over the last several years. Based on different types of requests it received, the group identified the service sector as one of the most vulnerable in terms of labor protection. This sector is oftentimes abusive when it comes to breaks, overtime work with no pay, delegation of several tasks to only one person, etc.
In terms of labor rights abuse in Armenia, experts specify the following as the most widespread: employment without contracts that are based on oral agreements (regarding nature of work and salary); contracts mentioning lower salaries to avoid paying higher taxes; signing temporary contracts without justifications for its temporary nature; specifying a probation period for all contracts, despite the law specifying cases where there is no need for it, and one of the most widespread violations – overtime work with no pay.
There have been other reported violations as well, especially in terms of discrimination. Vacancy announcements specifying “good looking women” or those only between ages of 18-30 for various jobs are widespread, yet no steps have been taken from the state to eliminate this practice. Members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities and religious minorities are reported to face additional barriers in finding jobs. Moreover, the gender pay gap in all economic spheres is about 36 percent, while globally it is 23 percent. Various industry sectors also continue to suffer from substandard safety conditions; in the past several years a number of fatal workplace accidents have been registered, with the mining sector leading the list. Those working in the private sector face further restrictions in exercising their rights, especially when it comes to paid leave or overtime work without additional compensation. Employment in the informal sector and the complete absence of government protection in this area adds additional exposure of employee abuse.
A relatively recent trend has seen an increase of workers from India mostly due to visa liberalization that came into force at the end of 2017. As a result it is now common to see not only students from India, but also Indians working at construction sites, car washes, etc. While this has unfortunately given rise to xenophobic commentaries on social media platforms expressing fears about the demographic challenges it may pose or loss of space in the labor market, the real problem has been left out of the conversation. Insufficient labor conditions, longer hours of work, even a case of trafficking reported in November 2018 as a café owner had exploited employees by misleading promises of high salaries and passport seizure - all of this has been a symptom of lack of inspections of the labor market. Further research is however necessary to understand the magnitude of problems that Indians or other nationalities may face in terms of violation of their labour rights in Armenia, including of course Armenians themselves.
Meanwhile, on paper labor laws in Armenia are considered to be relatively sufficient. Therefore, the solution is state supervision, without which the implementation of labor laws remain weak. There are at least two key steps that are necessary to ensure everyone in Armenia enjoys the fruits of the revolution – creating a stronger labor inspection agency that would guarantee state oversight in private and public sectors, and more independent trade unions that are able to represent workers’ rights, including in courts. Without these steps, social justice will remain a mere aspiration and the revolution - nothing more than a memory in people’s minds.