Over 1,000 workers were killed or injured in occupational accidents in Georgia from 2011–2016, according to data compiled by the Applied Research Company, a consultancy. Almost every month, yet another worker plunges to his death from Tbilisi’s shockingly unprotected highrise construction sites or a story of worker humiliation or exploitation hits the news. Labour issues have returned as fertile ground for Georgian activism.
by Grigol Gegelia
With a series of large protests having been held in the industrial towns of Chiatura, Ksani, Zestaponi, Tkibuli, and Rustavi over the last couple of years, public awareness of violations of labour rights is at all-time high. More recently, the spate of protests has expanded to include workers in the service industry and the Georgian Public Broadcasting (GPB).
But despite the gravity of the problem, and repeated calls by EU representatives to create an effective labour inspection mechanism, the government has hardly moved beyond symbolic changes.
The Department for the Monitoring of Labor Conditions has been created under the auspices of the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs, but without any executive powers to enforce standards, it has done very little to introduce adequate health and safety measures at the workplace. In fact, the department can only inspect workplaces when invited to do so by companies.
Labour issues may have began to attract more attention from the media and activists, but political interest has been lagging behind. Not a single Georgian political party has attempted to seize upon the protests momentum and convert it into electoral results.
There are two nominally left-wing parties in Georgia — the Labour Party and the Social-Democrats. Neither has been particularly active, or electorally successful, even though the Social Democrats have several Members of Parliament as part of Georgian Dream’s ruling coalition. Georgian Dream aligns nominally with the Socialists and Democrats grouping in the European Parliament, but with a multi-billionaire as its founder and a banker as its current Prime Minister, that linkage seems superficial.
The vast majority of Georgian political parties are economically liberal and support an untrammelled free market economy, accenting growth first, (re)distribution and protection later (if at all).
As in many post-Communist states, in Georgia, the left-wing political brand has been stigmatised by the country’s Soviet past. Since the levels of political literacy have also remained rather low, such a ‘post-Soviet syndrome’ has translated into a general scepticism towards social-democratic ideals that are unfairly associated with the Soviet Union’s dirigiste, planned economy, and authoritarianism.
Finally, while Georgia’s democracy may start to function as a mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power, electoral decision-making is still weakly linked to a value-based political debate. Political parties remain ideologically eclectic entities united around the personality of a leader. They rarely trouble themselves by seeking to represent the interests of particular segments of society — such as those of workers.
Like the parties, Georgia’s trade unions have remained fragmented and weak. This too is in large part due their past role as the Communist Party conduit, but also due to a more general lack of civic and political experience necessary for successful collective action. Trade unions are often mistrusted by the workers as excessively subservient to the pressures exerted by government and the business sector. A notable exception is perhaps the Trade Union of Metallurgy, Mining and Chemical Industry. Along with social activists, this trade union has been an active actor in a wide array of social actions, strikes, as well as public discussions. However, on the whole, Georgia’s trade unions have been unable to influence political processes.
Therefore, the task of informal worker representation has recently fallen almost entirely upon the shoulders of Georgia’s young activists.
Social movements and think-tanks
In recent years, a number of youth movements have sprang up in pursuit of various social objectives. They include green movements, such as the Green Fist and Georgian Young Greens, the White Noise Movement, which mostly lobbies for softer drug policy, as well as Tbilisi Solidarity Network and Auditorium 115, who are preoccupied primarily with workers’ rights.
Auditorium 115 is one of the most active and certainly the most widely publicised social movements in contemporary Georgia. Founded in 2016 by a group of students at Tbilisi State University, the movement initially focused on higher education reforms.
Many of the founding members were past members of Green Fist and of the Tbilisi Fabian Society, and well before the emergence of Auditorium 115 they had already advocated for workers’ rights and green politics.
The group soon expanded its political scope, which now includes calls for protecting queer rights, drug policy liberalisation, as well as demands to protect the rights of second-hand book dealers and street vendors.
Auditorium 115 represents a novelty in Georgia’s socio-political arena. The group has cast itself as a truly democratic movement, rejecting all forms of internal hierarchy. They have rallied public attention to issues neglected by the political establishment, occupying a socially liberal and economically socialist platform.
In so doing, the group has emerged as an active advocate of social-democratic, green, and democratic politics, and has presented the kind of alternative — even if not yet explicitly political — that could be expected of Georgia’s defunct, nominally left-wing parties.
Georgia has also seen the gradual rise of think-tanks preoccupied with progressive matters. The socially liberal Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) has been highly productive in the study of labour laws, religious liberty and secularism, as well as human rights. EMC has produced numerous publications and policy briefs, as well as legal commentary when necessary, and offered legal services in specific cases of labour rights violations.
The activities of European.ge have been confined exclusively to the intellectual sphere, rather than activism, and have mostly included translations of progressive Western newspaper articles, holding discussions of recent work, and public lectures. From time to time, authors on this platform have prepared policy documents, as well as brief commentaries on contemporary politics.
The future of the left
Georgia’s social activists and think-tanks are stronger today than ever before. However, they still lack a common political language and a credible political platform. While the topics of labour rights, social and economic oppression, gentrification, and economically irresponsible capitalism have already featured prominently in their discourses, these messages are neither coherent, nor indeed sufficiently politicised.
Like in other democracies, Georgia’s left is also divided into various ideological camps. However, far more than any ideological division, it is a series of personal rivalries and antagonisms that continue to divide the left-wing spectrum. This has served to incapacitate Georgia’s already weak left, especially given the challenging contexts in which it finds itself at present.
However, recent months have witnessed increasing cooperation among some of these groups, as well as the appearance of a common political language that sets as an objective of the ‘common struggle’ to abolish of all forms of oppression. The broader critique of neoliberalism is certainly another unifying trait.
But while incipient forms of unity and a high potential for political activism are in place, coherence, unity and the right circumstances seem so far lacking.
This article was prepared in partnership with OC Media with funding from COBERM. All place names and terminology used are the words of the author alone, and their opinion may not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial boards of OC Media or Civil.ge.