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27 April 2006

Over 250 delegates from 9 CIS countries and 31 industrial Trade Union Internationals (TUIs) took part in an international conference on the current situation and problems of the trade union movement in CIS countries convened by the General Confederation of Trade Unions in Moscow from 14-15 April 2006.

The conference participants included the first leaders and other trade unionists delegated by national trade union centres, TUIs, industrial and territorial unions, and workplace organisations, and representatives of trade union schools and research institutions.

Addressing the opening session, GCTU President Mikhail Shmakov said the conference was held at a crucial moment for the Commonwealth of Independent States. Although they showed some positive trends in their economic and social development, the CIS countries were still faced up with numerous serious challenges.

“What we see almost everywhere, he said, is the mass unemployment, the growth of uncontrolled exploitation of workers, and the critical situation in education, health care, social protection, work safety and environmental protection. The problem of delayed wages is still there. A lot of troubles arise from the migration processes, particularly from illegal migration. By many social standards, our countries bring up the rear of the UN statistics. The recent slight decline in workers’ strike involvement in a number of CIS countries cannot, unfortunately, be taken as a sign of diminishing social discontent. Labour legislations in our countries often collide with international labour standards”. GCTU President referred to the numerous facts of official interference in the unions’ internal affairs and infringement on the rights of workers and trade unions by employers and state authorities.

Mikhail Shmakov said the conference was expected to formulate a common strategy for coordinating trade union efforts within the bounds of the CIS, enhancing all aspects of organizing activity, and broadening the workers’ and trade unions’ solidarity.

In his keynote speech, GCTU General Secretary Vladimir Scherbakov told participants that the conference must first of all identify the reasons preventing the unions from more efficient performance, and try to find mechanisms for solving problems that may be common to the region’s trade unions. Special importance should be attached to the questions of strengthening the organisational unity and solidarity of workers and their unions.

The speaker dwelt on the need to consolidate the democratic basis of trade union activity, enhance the unions’ presence and influence in transnational corporations, optimise the structures of industrial unions, and strengthen the financial base of trade unions.

Improvement of motivation for union membership should be the cornerstone of organising activity. “Further shrinkage of the mass character of trade unions in the specific economic and social situations prevailing in CIS countries will inevitably limit their ability to influence socially important processes in society”, Vladimir Scherbakov said. “There are a lot of small, weak unions. Quite often, they are fighting with each other for affiliation and members. No need to say this is far from being conducive to trade union unity”.

The issues of organisational development of trade unions have become particularly topical today, in a globalising economy, with the growing inflow of foreign capital into the countries of the region.

Although most Commonwealth countries have now formulated the legal frameworks for trade union activity, only four of them, namely Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine, can boast of meeting the ILO requirements to an acceptable extent. Therefore, the unions in other CIS countries should focus more effort on progressing towards this end.

Vladimir Scherbakov stressed that “consolidation of activities and solidarity underlie, in actual fact, the whole policy of the GCTU, being the very reason for its existence”. A good example of cooperation in the spirit of solidarity was provided by the current GCTU campaign for raising the minimum wages at least to the level of subsistence minimum. Practically all GCTU affiliates are actively involved in the campaign, which has already produced tangible results.

“In 2005, the minimum wages rose by 15 per cent in Armenia, 50 per cent in Azerbaijan, 22 per cent in Belarus, 39 per cent in Kazakhstan, 100 per cent in Moldova, 33 per cent in Russia, 71 per cent in Tajikistan, and by 40 per cent in Ukraine. Most CIS countries have narrowed the gap between the minimum pay and the subsistence minimum. The campaign has shown that when we are together, shoulder to shoulder, willing to lend a helping hand, we can face up to any challenges in our struggle to achieve better conditions for workers”, he concluded.

The conference proceeded in three workshops on: 1) The problems of organising and the strengthening of trade union solidarity; 2) Trade unions and the problems of social dialogue (social partnership); and 3) Information support of trade union activity. Over 70 participants took part in the debates at the plenary sessions and workshops.

At the opening plenary session participants listened to Professor Alexei Shulus, Rector of the Academy of Labour and Social Relations; Grigory Osovy, Vice President of the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine; Rimm Papilov, President of the International Organisation of Trade Unions of Educational and Scientific Workers; Siyazbek Mukashev, President of the Federation of Trade Unions of the Republic of Kazakhstan; Leonid Kozik, President of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus; Georgy Stoliarenko, President of the International Confederation of Water Transport Workers’ Unions; and Tatiana Frolova, Vice President of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia.

The closing plenary session heard the summaries of debates in the three workshops presented by their respective rapporteurs: 1) Leonid Martynov, Chair of the GCTU Commission for Organising, Cooperation of the Contiguous Regions and Training, Vice President of the Federation of Trade Unions of the Rerpublic of Kazakhstan; 2) Guennady Arzhanov, Co-chair of the GCTU Commission for the Protection of Workers’ Social and Economic Interests and for Legal Issues, President of the International Confederation of Construction and Building Materials Industry Workers’ Unions; and 3) Tatiana Ogorodova, Chair of the GCTU Commission for Humanitarian Cooperation and Information, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Association “Consultative Council of Cultural Workers’ Unions”.

The conference wound up its proceedings with the adoption of a Final Document (Recommendations).

Only strong, well-organised and united trade unions, the Document reads, with optimal structures, headed by a combination of experienced and young leaders, and practicing energetic and powerful policies based on solidarity, can be attractive both to workers and social partners and able to protect efficiently workers’ rights and interests and defend trade union rights and freedoms.

“At this conference we have heard different opinions, various ideas have been proposed about the future of the trade union movement in CIS countries”, Mikhail Shmakov said in conclusion. “Which is good, for this has helped us learn more about one another and come to a better understanding of what we have in common and where we differ. I believe such an open and, what is important, frank exchange of opinions will help us decide which way our organisation should proceed, and what are its real prospects in the context of cardinal changes taking place on the global trade union map”.