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Defending Armenia’s Workers – Is Class Struggle on the Agenda?

By Markar Melkonian and Hrant Gadarigian

A Visit with Boris Kharatyan, Deputy Chairman of Confederation of Trade Unions of Armenia (HAMK)

Ask a waitress or a supermarket clerk in Yerevan if she and her fellow workers are members of a labor union (arhmiutyun).  Judging from our experience, she will either give you a blank stare or she will look alarmed, as if you had just asked if there were an epidemic of herpes in her workplace. 

Many wage earners in Armenia, especially young ones, do not know what a labor union is.  This might sound strange to a casual observer who has been introduced to the facts of unemployment, low wages, forced overtime, and appalling workplace safety in the Republic of Armenia. 

“HAMK”:  The Confederation of Trade Unions of Armenia

On August 19, Boris Kharatyan, Deputy Chairman of the Confederation of Trade Unions of Armenia (HAMK), made time in his busy schedule to meet with us at the Confederation headquarters just off Sargsyan Street in Yerevan, to talk about prospects for union organization in Armenia.  Kharatyan comes off as a competent, no-nonsense trade union official who is genuinely concerned about his constituents.  He was also very patient with Markar Melkonian’s dismal Armenian language skills. 

The Confederation of Trade Unions of Armenia (Հայաստանի արհմիությունների կոնֆեդերացիա) is the successor to the Soviet-era Council of Trade Unions of Armenia.  Today, it is the only republic-level representative of unionized workers in Armenia, encompassing twenty affiliated branch unions that represent some 197,000 workers, out of an estimated total labor force of 1.194 million (2011 estimate).  HAMK, then, represents about one-sixth of the total labor force in the country.  Branch unions affiliated with HAMK include organizations of agro-industrial workers, healthcare workers, teachers, employees of banks and financial institutions, construction workers, transport and communication workers, and an oddly sorted Trade Union Organization of Miners, Metallurgists, and Jewelers.  The largest union in the country that is not affiliated with HAMK is the ArmenTel workers’ union, a sweetheart union of the privately owned telecommunications company.   

Article 28 of The Constitution of the Republic of Armenia (the RA) guarantees that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions.”  Accordingly, the Labor Code of the RA (Article 23) states that rights and interests of workers may be represented by trade unions.  Article 32 of the Constitution of the RA further guarantees that “employees shall have the right to strike for the protection of their economic, social and employment interests…”

On paper, then, workers in Armenia (with the exception of civil servants and those serving in the armed forces and law enforcement agencies) have the right to form and join independent trade unions of their choice.  Moreover, they have a constitutional right to strike--at least against privately owned firms under unexceptional circumstances.

In practice, though, most workers are unable to exercise the right to unionize and to engage in collective bargaining, due to vagaries of the labor code and the government’s tolerance of high levels of employment in the “informal sector.”  When it comes to the right to strike, the legal requirements for ratification of a strike vote by a general meeting and a two-thirds vote in favor of a strike poses a big impediment to the exercise of that right.  “That’s a very high [hurdle],” Kharatyan noted, with reference to the strike vote requirements:  “We must lower it, lower it.” 

According to figures published by the Central Bank of Armenia in June 2016, unemployment in the first quarter of 2016 was 18%.  (As a point of reference, unemployment in the United States in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, was 25%.)  It is important to note, though, that the Central Bank’s unemployment figure purports to measure unemployment within the Republic; it does not take into account the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have permanently left the republic in search of jobs.

The latter consideration makes a difference.  The question of the population of Armenia is a highly charged topic, one that stokes a narrative of national diminishment.  Between 1991 and1996, nearly 650,000 people left the country, and in the twenty years since then, hundreds of thousands of others have emigrated.  Armstat, the National Statistical Service, recently (2016) put the current population of the republic at 2.9 million, although opposition leaders—without offering much in the way of convincing evidence--have publicly claimed that the figure is closer to two million.  Whether the truth is closer to the Armstat figure or the two million figure, one should keep in mind that Armenia’s population has registered a net decline from the 3.5 million figure in the final years of the Soviet period; that is to say, a decline in total population, even after the influx of tens of thousands of refugees from Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabagh in the early 1990’s.  The number of Armenians in the larger Southern Caucasus region has dropped by perhaps one-third. 

The most common explanation for the demographic outflow is unemployment, as Armenians have left the RA in search of jobs.  The main destination of the emigrants has been Russia, where nowadays almost as many ethnic Armenians reside as in the RA.

The International Labor Organization: An Impartial Umpire?

HAMK participates in the International Labor Organization (IKO).  Founded in 1919 with the announced aim of raising labor standards internationally, the ILO became a specialized UN agency in 1946.  Soon after the demise of the Soviet Union, the RA, along with the Republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and other former Soviet Republics, became member states of the ILO.  From the ILO website, we learn that the organization “brings together governments’, employers’, and workers’ representatives of 187 member states, to set labour standards, develop policies, and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men.”

Kharatyan observed that, “the ILO in 1919 was to a certain extent an answer to 1918”:  it arose as a response to the rising waves of revolutionary activity in Europe after the October Revolution in Russia.  (See, for example, Guy Standing, “The ILO:  An Agency for Globalization?” in Development and Change 39(3), 2008, p. 356.)  The message of the ILO was that, instead of class struggle and a contest for state power, representatives of capital and of labor should come together, to “argue with each other and come to an agreement,” as Kharatyan put it. 

Social Partnership or One-Sided Class Struggle? 

The ILO presents “social partnership” (sotsial kordzungerutyun) as an alternative to what Kharatyan described as “the old Marxist idea of class struggle,” which views the interests of workers and employers as “100% opposed.”  The Labor Code of the RA defines “social partnership” as a system of interrelations between the representatives of workers, the representatives of employers, and the Government of the Republic of Armenia, a system aimed at representing the interests of workers and employers, as equal parties in collective bargaining.

The ideal of social partnership is embodied in the ILO’s celebrated tripartite structure.  HAMK is bound to abide by the mandate of the ILO, to give "an equal voice to workers, employers, and governments to ensure that the views of the social partners are closely reflected in labour standards and in shaping policies and programmes." 

HAMK does not have enforcement power.  That power, rather, falls to the state, which is connected to this tripartite structure through the Ministries, notably the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of the RA and the Ministry of Health.  These ministries have the power to enforce the Labor Code of the RA and ILO directives.  There is no specialized labor court system in the ROA:  labor disputes, including collective bargaining disputes, are dealt with in the civil judiciary system.

The idea of social partnership and the raft of assumptions upon which it floats fit into the official picture of the state as an impartial umpire, or a level playing field where various interest groups, including labor and capital, compete for their share of limited resources.  One may search the HAMK website (hamk.am) in vain for a critical view of this official picture, and at no point in our conversation did Kharatyan express doubt about it, either.  Accordingly, he put much emphasis on legality (orinakanutyun), as opposed to class struggle

When asked how the social partnership has been working out in the RA, the Deputy Chairman said, “It’s working to a certain extent,” adding: “I’m not saying that it’s working at a high level.”  The statement could be taken as an expression of a long-lingering feeling of diminished aspirations for unionized workers, as if their representatives have their hands full just trying to stem the trend of falling living standards for their members. 

The State Labor Inspectorate of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is supposed to defend the rights of workers and to settle disputes between employers and employees.  It is not entirely clear, however, that it lives up to its mandate.  As one writer recently observed, “the Inspectorate, rather than being created to defend employees’ rights under the law, is engaged in seeking loopholes to the law that can be conveniently used when necessary.”   (Sara Petrosyan, “State Labor Inspectorate Fails to Protect Workers,” Hetq.am Online, 21 Feb., 2016.)  “In any event,” the same writer added, “it is clear that inspections carried out by the agency are not motivated by any desire to defend workers’ rights.”

We discussed industrial safety and the high rate of industrial accidents in the country since 1995, notably in mining.   We did not have time during our visit to discuss working conditions overall, nor the related problem of industrial pollution, which disproportionately affects workers.   But we did briefly discuss prospects—or the lack of prospects—of building an institution to represent the large part of Armenia’s population that is unemployed or unemployed:  could Armenia follow the example of the Irish National Organization of the Unemployed, the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union, or the UR Union of the Unemployed (U-Cubed) in the United States?   

The idea is that workers, whether employed, unemployed, or underemployed, share a common interest in cutting the length of the work day, and on the basis of this common interest it may be possible to unite the large part of the population that is unemployed and underemployed.  

After a brief discussion, Kharatyan asserted that it is the state’s responsibility to provide support to the unemployed, and as for organizing that part of the population, that too is “the state’s problem.”   

The Fairy Tale of the Neutral State

So social partnership within the ILO is supposed to involve joint agreement among business, labor, and a state that is imagined to be neutral as between the competing interests of labor and capital.  As a participant in the ILO, HAMK is dedicated to this agreement, and its work takes place entirely within this tripartite structure. 

Business, by contrast, is not constrained by this structure.  Employers have produced a profusion of organizations to determine and pursue their own interests, both particular and collective. 

In the first place there is, of course, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) of the RA, a well-connected, well established, and well funded organization dedicated, according to their mission statement, to “the improvement of the business environment, promotion of export and investments, support to small and medium enterprises…”  The CCI describes its purpose as serving as “a bridge between business organizations and state bodies.” 

And then there is the Union of Manufacturers and Businessmen (Employers), an NGO founded in 1996 to protect “the interest of local manufacturers, development of international business co-operation, creation of mutually beneficial relations for companies inside Armenia and abroad.”  (umba.info.am)

There is also the Association for Foreign Investment and Cooperation (AFIC) and the Republican Union of Employers of Armenia (est. 2007), as well as many bilateral commercial, industrial, and import-export associations.  And then of course there are many large NGO’s in Armenia concerned with “civil society development”—a phrase signaling devotion to the interest of employers, private firms, and corporations.

Employers and manufacturers, then, have their own well-funded, well-connected and influential organizations, to determine their collective aims and to pursue them.  Through their own institutions, and in consultation with the Ministries, the National Assembly, the executive branch, and the judiciary, capitalists collectively engage to determine policy, which is enforced by the police and courts.  They work hand-in-hand with state institutions, outside of tripartite structures and “social partnership,” and they all line up against a mass of mostly unorganized workers with their backs to the abyss of unemployment.

One-Sided Class Consciousness in Armenia

The capitalist class in Armenia is quite evidently an organized and self-conscious class, a class for itself, with a near total monopoly on political power and influence within the state.  Workers in Armenia, by contrast, are subject to constant discipline and repression emanating from labor’s supposed “social partners,” the state and private capital.  There is little in the way of practical recognition among workers or from the Confederation that workers constitute a class in itself.  Thus, the suggestion that workers should form themselves into a class for itself never arises. 

When it comes to capital and labor, then, there is an enormous asymmetry of class consciousness, resources, and power. Evidently, employers understand very well that they constitute a class; not so in the case of workers.

The consequences of this asymmetry are obvious in Yerevan and throughout the RA, from unemployment rates and emigration, to industrial safety, mining pollution, and nonpayment of back wages.  Just two randomly selected illustrations of this point, from the hundreds that could be cited:  (1) In the RA, an average of two fatal mining accidents has taken place every year since1995, while hundreds of miners have been seriously injured and left with entirely insufficient compensation; (2) at the end of the second quarter of 2016, Armenia's monthly subsistence level (calculated according to the cost of a monthly per capita food basket) fell to 55,703 drams—a 6.5% decrease from the same period in 2015.  (National Statistical Service)

And yet only one-sixth of the working population is organized, and their union confederation, HAMK, denies the reality of class struggle. 

The Confederation Does Not See Workers as a Class

HAMK is what it is - a confederation of labor unions trying under adverse conditions to increase income and improve working hours for its membership.  Or at least to fight against further wage cuts and forced overtime.  Men and women like Deputy Chairman Kharatyan pursue the interests of their members.  Their perspective is an accommodation to conditions that are hostile to organized labor:  high unemployment and emigration, and correspondingly low rates of unionization--as well as the continuing acceptance of neoliberal assumptions as the Gospel Truth.  

HAMK has an interest, of course, in increasing its membership.  However, there does not appear to be any ambition on the part of the Confederation to represent workers as a class. 

Indeed, it was not clear from our conversation that there is a recognition, either on the conversational level or on the practical level, that workers in Armenia--both those who are employed and those who are unemployed or underemployed—even constitute a class in itself.  And this lack or recognition is yet one more obstacle in the way to forging workers in the RA into a class for itself. 

Top Photo: Boris Kharatyan (@Markar Melkonian)

Comments (2)

Very insightful piece on the challenges faced by workers in Armenia and the position of HMAK, regarding how best to defend their interests. Hetq needs to do more coverage like this for readers outside Armenia and less on the minutiae of who said what and who did what. Also, please less stories on impoverished families. We get the point already.
well researched and argued piece. I guess HMAK is doing the best it can under the circumstances. No one else in Armenia, opposition or regime, seems to have workers in mind...

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