Why are bureaucrats in Brussels so concerned about the fate of metallurgic plant workers in Kutaisi? That question came to my mind when the desire of the European Union (EU) to change the Labor Code of Georgia became a topical issue.
Everything started in Kutaisi this past September when police detained thirty-four striking workers at a privately owned metallurgic plant there. According to police, the strikers were detained after they prevented other personnel from working, in particular by staging so-called “corridors of shame” and spitting at them. The strike was called to demand reinstatement of several fired workers, installation of additional showers, new work uniforms and a canteen in the plant.
Details of the Kutaisi conflict are not essential here (had anyone even heard about metallurgy in Kutaisi until now?!). The general picture, as I see it, is this: the Kutaisi metallurgic plant is a low-tech scrap-processing enterprise created entirely from private Georgian-Indian capital and employing up to five-hundred mostly unskilled workers who (I can assume) would most likely not be able to find a job were it not for the plant.
It is evident that working conditions at the plant are well below conditions in, say, a bank office. Wages at the plant are not high and workers have to hang their outer garments on nails rather than in a wardrobe carved from precious wood. Professional unions have tried to make the most of these conditions by using them as ammunition in their fight for special privileges, evidently with support of the EU bureaucracy.
Why, I wonder, is the fate of our professional union and the state of our Labor Code so important for Europeans? Three possible reasons come to my mind.
The first possible reason why European bureaucrats show a keen interest in the current Labor Code of Georgia is that it grants equal rights to an employer and an employee. The Labor Code gives priority to negotiated terms of an employment contract over more generally applicable provisions of the law. The Code allows citizens to join any type of association, including professional unions, but it does not grant professional unions any special right to interfere in the employer-employee relationship. Neither our professional union nor its European partner trade unions approve of that. In many European countries (and in the United States as well), trade unions comprise a powerful voting bloc and represent a force to be reckoned with by European politicians. That is not the case in every European country, however. Professional unions in Switzerland, for example, are weak.
The second reason, in my opinion, is that the European Union is not ready for Georgia to make significant headway in its European integration because that would irritate Russia too much. That is why we have had to tune our legislation to Brussels’ orchestration, even though official negotiations on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and Association Agreement have not even started yet. In short, the European Union is just dragging its heels.
The third reason – and probably the most daring assumption – is that the European Union does not want Georgia to have a free and competitive market at EU borders which could potentially compete for investments with more-developed European countries. Just think, who would invest money in a business, say, in Bulgaria, which could be done much cheaper and easier in Georgia? Or, conversely, who would invest in Georgia if the legislative framework and labor costs were the same as they are in Bulgaria?
Amending the Labor Code to a socialized model is just one of the demands put forward by the European Union on Georgia’s path toward integration. There are myriad other requirements which eventually will make Georgia’s legislative environment too similar to that of Europe. We cannot deny approximation altogether, but if we fulfill each and every requirement of European bureaucracy then Georgia will be on the path to becoming another Greece. The only difference would be that Georgia would be poorer and would get no assistance from the European Union. The Greek example serves as a perfect reminder of how far socialist zeal can take a country – all the way to bankruptcy.