Spotlight on Hamlet Lomidze (RWU – Georgia)

“There are a lot of hazardous and unsafe working conditions, and the traumatic cases have increased the last years.”

Georgia is rapidly becoming one of the worst cases for human and trade union rights in Europe. While on one hand Georgia is presenting its successes in terms of economic growth, on the other hand it keeps silent on the growing number of human rights violations and the total disregard and ignorance of health and safety issues, which has led to costs in workers’ lives on an increasing scale. President of the Railway Workers Union (RWU), Hamlet Lomidze is a railway engineer who has worked for 25 years in the railway structure and has been awarded a title for “honoured railway worker”.

You denounced what happened to the collective agreement between the railway workers union and the Georgian government, which has always been put forward as the perfect example of the model of social dialogue. Could you explain?

In July last year, suddenly the government terminated some articles, one of which was about trade union member’s benefits. And it was also decided that these benefits were to be directly issued back to the ministry – although these benefits were meant for the workers!

The Railway union challenged the case in court, and the court ruled against the unions. Not only did they rule against us; they ruled against us on basis of a law which was abolished already in 2006.

You have had a rocky road towards the presidency of your union. Please tell us about it.

First I was appointed as a temporary acting president and then the new congress elected me. But the Railway administration tried to interfere with the affairs of the trade unions – they wanted to make the elections fail! But in spite of this, the 69 delegates needed for the congress decision were still there, and they could proceed with the elections. But it’s clear that the whole Railway administration is against the unions.

What are the most pressing matters right now?

We are trying to get the system of the membership fees reinstated. But meanwhile we are trying to circumvent the system by asking individual members to transfer their fees on an individual basis. But members fear that the individual fee transfers might get them dismissed.

We have some 15,000 members. These members still remain in the union, but only 3,000 members pays the fees.

Is it dangerous for you to be a trade union leader?

The most important thing for me is that the railway workers WANT to be members and have a high degree of membership. And no, I am not scared. We need to address more issues; it’s a continuing struggle.

Tell us about the consequences of the fact that Georgia does not have a labour inspection?

All the equipment is outdated. Every day there are violations of the health and safety conditions. There are a lot of hazardous and unsafe working conditions, and the traumatic cases have increased the last years. This is mainly due to the bad equipment but also to the fact that they are cutting the staff – the same work has to be done by fewer workers. And there has also been some cases when workers have died.

The investigating committees of accidents are currently only including administrative officials, and they are always looking to blame the guilt on the individual worker in order to not have to pay any indemnities.

There are also bad health and safety conditions in the mining sector. During the past year three big explosions have taken place in the Georgian mines – in total nine workers died. After the first explosion the trade unions made an independent investigation, and it was said then in the report that it was likely to happen again – which it did only four months later. And then, yet again, a third time. After a two-day strike, a memorandum of cooperation was signed between the trade unions and the administration. There was an agreement to negotiate on 25 points. This is a slow process, but at least some positive signs can be found.

What kind of support are you looking for from the international community?

First of all we need international organisations to put economic and political demands on the Georgian gouvernment. The Railway company is a 100% state-owned company.

And yes, even though we really need help from the international community, I am the first to recognise also the need for mobilising the grassroots in order to be able to change things. Apart from this we need of course also practical and economic help. We need to keep free independent trade unions in our society!

Interview by Kristin Blom

- Read also the Spotlight interview on Maia Kobakhidze (ESFTUG– Georgia): “How to protect our members when we are fighting for the existence of the organisation!“

- Read also the ITUC online (5 May 2011) : Georgia: Europe’s Black Sheep for Workers’ Rights’

For any further information, please contact the ITUC press department at: +32 2 224 0204 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +32 2 224 0204 end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +32 2 224 0204 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or +32 476 621 018