Why people in Armenia do not fight for their labor rights
When labor rights are violated in Armenia, people are forced to choose between fighting to protect them and keeping their jobs. On top of that, many simply do not know where to turn for help with this issue.
At the same time, there is no real system in place to protect labor rights, as the government does not regulate or exercise any control over violations. Clashes between employers and employees can only be resolved in court.
But for the past few months, during the quarantine brought on by the coronavirus, several amendments have been introduced to the labor code that will help improve this situation.
Fight or stay silent?
“Two masks a day is 240 drams [around half a dollar], I spend another 500 on lunch, 200 drams on the marshrutka to work and back. Luckily, everyone is in masks and we can act like we don’t know each other so you don’t have to pay for others on public transport,” jokes Ani, who works as a hairdresser at a beauty salon in Yerevan.
She says her daily earnings barely cover her expenses. Since March 16, when the state of emergency was declared, there has been no work available for two months. After the commandant eased the restrictions on the business sector, the beauty salon employees take turns going to work every other day in order to adhere to social distance rules.
“Nowadays, many people are afraid of going to the hair salon. Sometimes we only have 2-3 clients a day. And half of the money we make goes to our boss. We end up spending everything that we make in a day,” says Ani.
As employees in one of the areas most affected by the coronavirus epidemic, Ani and her colleagues received financial compensation from the government two months ago. They were given 68,000 drams (140 dollars). They do not know how much the owner of the salon received.
“When we got this money, the salon management told us that we had to give half of it to the salon owner so they could pay rent, taxes, etc. I tried to protest, because I knew for a fact that the owner also received assistance and didn’t have the right to demand money from us, but no one supported me. Apparently everyone else understood the situation, and I was the only one with questions. In the end, I had to give the owner 34,000,” says Ani.
There are many posts on social media detailing similar demands from employers, but people avoid making official complaints. The main reason is that they fear losing their jobs during these already difficult times. In addition, many do not know where to turn in order to protect their rights.
Labor rights unprotected in Armenia
The country’s constitution, as well as the legislative acts regulating labor relations, are based on the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter. However, there are no mechanisms in place to protect labor rights if they are violated.
Until 2013, the government body responsible for handling labor rights violations was the labor inspectorate, which operated under the ministry of labor and social affairs.
Since 2013, the inspectorate has been transferred to the ministry of health, and the only function it retains is monitoring the health of employees and the safety of their working conditions.
In fact, since 2013, Armenia has not carried out any state control of labor rights violations. Courts remain the only way to resolve labor disputes.
“If an employee believes that he was fired without cause, they have two months to go to court. And the employer is obliged to notify the employee 60 days before downsizing. Otherwise, the company must financially compensate the employee,” explains Zhora Sargsyan, head of the employment department of the ministry of labor and social affairs.
The judicial department reports that from 2013 to 2019, the court considered more than 200 civil cases concerning violations of labor rights annually.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the number of complaints and allegations of labor rights violations increased. Many of them contacted the ombudsman’s office.
The complaints were divided into the following categories:
employers did not pay employees for mandatory vacation,
employers forced employees to take unpaid leave,
if employees refused, they were fired,
employers refused to provide employees with paid leave,
employees were forced to go to work, despite the quarantine.
Only a small part of these violations are regulated by the labor code, and for most of the issues, the law suggests that employers and employees to come to an agreement among themselves.
Since the state of emergency was declared in the country, employers have often referred to the legal concept of a “force majeure”, which frees them from all obligations. As for the state of emergency itself, this concept was not even mentioned in the labor code.
The ministry of labor and social affairs initiated changes to the labor code in order to remedy the situation. They were adopted in May.
“The concept of remote work, the procedure for issuing salaries for remote work, the rights of workers in emergency situations, and the procedure for paying employees during downtime caused by force majeure were all established.
On top of that, additional powers were granted to the health and labor inspection body, which, during a state of emergency, can exercise state control over the implementation of labor legislation by employers. And in some cases stipulated by the law, they can bring violators to justice,” says Zhora Sargsyan.
But even after these amendments entered into force, the inspection body did not consider a single complaint, since these powers were not spelled out in its charter. The charter was changed quite recently, just two months after the initial amendments.
“I’m thankful for that”
Ani the hairdresser admits that she did not turn to any regulating body to complain about her boss. Of course, she needed the financial assistance more, especially after two months of complete downtime, but nevertheless, she is grateful that she and her colleagues were not left completely without work:
“At a time when everyone around us is becoming unemployed, we have kept our jobs. Yes, it’s hard now, but at least we have hope that when it’s over, we’ll return to our normal life. I have many acquaintances, especially in the food industry, who have lost their jobs altogether. They have no hope of overcoming this situation within the next year or two. So I’m thankful for that.”