Opinion | Georgia’s labour oversight body has backtracked on transparency

21 Jul, 2023

By Giorgi Gogia and Jeff Vize
(Originally published in OC Media on 14 July 2023.)

Georgia’s nascent Labour Inspectorate, the body overseeing labour safety and rights in the country, began redacting employers’ names from its public inspection reports in mid-April, prompting outcry and a legal pushback from labour monitoring organisations.

Understandably, businesses felt uncomfortable when their breaches of labour laws and regulations were publicly exposed, at times leading to fines and other penalties. But this transparency served as an added incentive that encouraged them to fix those breaches, and also allowed workers to check their employers’ performance on labour rights and safety.

On 5 July, the Social Justice Center filed a lawsuit against the inspectorate to challenge this move on behalf of the Georgia Fair Labour Platform, a coalition of labour unions and civil society organisations. It argued that the names of employers who violate labour rights are not protected under Georgia’s privacy law or as ‘confidential information’, as the inspectorate claims.

The lawsuit also notes that backtracking on transparency goes against established practice.

A major blow to transparency

For nearly three years, the Labour Inspectorate has shared its inspection reports with the Fair Labour Platform following freedom of information requests. The Fair Labour Platform uploaded these reports to its Labour Rights Monitor, an online database that allows the public to freely access the reports.

The inspectorate’s new position is a major blow to transparency. It also violates the government’s international human rights obligations to ensure workers’ rights to a safe and healthy workplace and to access information held by public officials, including information about unsafe workplace conditions.

The inspectorate itself has no online database and does not publish its inspection reports, so the Labour Rights Monitor filled a void, giving the public a window into its important work. The hope was that more openness — revealing company names, specific violations and sanctions — would build public trust and push both businesses and the inspectorate to continually improve.

The inspectorate’s recent history underscores why transparency and earning the public’s trust are important.

In 2006, Georgia dramatically reduced worker protections and abolished the Labour Inspectorate as part of sweeping economic reforms aimed at attracting foreign investment. The move was disastrous for workers: workplace deaths soared by 74%, and the promised benefit of new jobs failed to materialise,  as unemployment continued rising through 2010.

The inspectorate was resurrected in 2015, albeit with its powers severely limited; its mandate allowed it to address issues relating to health and safety, but not labour rights. Those powers expanded in 2019 to include the ability to conduct unannounced inspections on safety issues in all sectors, and again in 2021, when its mandate grew to include all labour rights. Georgia also revamped its labour code in 2021, introducing regulation of issues including work hours, night shifts, and rest, bringing it closer to international standards, and widening the inspectorate’s mandate.

Finally, the stage was set for the Labour Inspectorate to mature into a genuine guardian of workers’ rights.

‘They treat us like slaves’

Georgia badly needs such a guardian. The labour rights landscape is bleak, as evidenced by a wave of strikes and labour protests in the first half of 2023. Unpaid overtime is rampant, wage theft by employers is common, laws protecting union activity are weak, bosses can be abusive, and most salaries fall far short of a living wage. Legal remedies are theoretically available in court, but they take years to achieve and require financial resources that most workers don’t have. With unemployment hovering at 18%, many workers are hesitant to speak out for fear of losing their income entirely.

The result is a system where employers largely do as they please. As one delivery worker told Georgian media, ‘they treat us like slaves’.

Many hoped that an effective Labour Inspectorate could start to change this. But true effectiveness must be built on a foundation of transparency, allowing the public to see that the inspectorate’s work is credible and impartial.

Hiding employers’ identities — despite Georgia’s Constitutional Court having ruled in 2017 that such information should be public — flies in the face of that goal. It also validates a fear that we have heard often from workers: that the inspectorate serves employers, not employees. If that’s the case, why should workers trust it  to address their complaints?

The Fair Labour Platform’s Labour Rights Monitor was designed to help foster this transparency, and early returns were promising. By early 2023, the Monitor had grown to include over 500 inspection reports and received more than 12,000 page views.

Information gleaned from the database has enriched the public policy debate around labour rights, informing several reports and statements by the Fair Labour Platform and its members. It has helped facilitate research on wage theft, exposed troubling developments in the app-based gig economy, and provided important context regarding abuses in the construction, mining, and public sectors.

All of this is now threatened by the Labour Inspectorate’s decision to prioritise employers’ interests over workers’ rights.

If Georgia’s government is serious about improving labour rights, it needs to start by ensuring that the Labour Inspectorate’s work is transparent and open. There’s no need to wait for a court order. The Labour Inspectorate should do the right thing and keep the reports public.

Giorgi Gogia is associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Jeff Vize is a senior adviser in the Alliances and Partnerships Program at Human Rights Watch.

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