The Republic of Kazakhstan’s government and constitution concentrate power in the presidency. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev became president after June 2019 elections that were marked, according to an observation mission by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, by election day violations, including ballot stuffing and falsification of vote counts; restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, expression, and association; and “scant respect for democratic standards” overall. Former president Nursultan Nazarbayev enjoys broad, lifetime legal authority over a range of government functions. The executive branch controls the legislature and the judiciary, as well as regional and local governments. Changes or amendments to the constitution require presidential consent. On August 12, in the country’s only national election during the year, the legislatures of oblasts and cities of national significance chose 17 of 49 senators for parliament’s upper house in an indirect election tightly controlled by local governors working in coordination with the presidential administration.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs supervises the national police force, which has primary responsibility for internal security. The Committee for National Security also oversees internal and border security, as well as national security, antiterrorism efforts, and the investigation and interdiction of illegal or unregistered groups, such as extremist groups, military groups, political parties, religious groups, and trade unions. The committee reports directly to the president, and its chairman sits on the Security Council, chaired by former president Nazarbayev. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Security forces committed abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing by or on behalf of the government; torture by and on behalf of the government; political prisoners; problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; corruption; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.
The government selectively prosecuted officials who committed abuses, especially in high-profile corruption cases. Nonetheless, corruption remained widespread, and impunity existed for many in positions of authority as well as for those connected to law enforcement entities.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: In December 2019 President Tokayev signed into law legislative amendments that increased punishments for sexual abuse and rape to eight years of imprisonment, and if committed against a minor, to life imprisonment. There were reports of police and judicial reluctance to act on reports of rape, particularly in spousal rape cases.
On August 27, an Almaty court held a trial for a rape case in which both a former prosecutor and a former manager of a local bank were charged with a November 2019 rape. When the victim first submitted a complaint to police, they refused to record the complaint. Due to her lawyer’s persistence, the complaint was later officially registered. Police resistance, procrastination, attempts to hush up the complainant, and other hurdles delayed the investigation. The victim faced pressure and intimidation by the assailants’ relatives who tried to force her to withdraw the complaint. Her lawyer resorted to making an effort to draw public attention to the case and publicize appeals to the president and parliamentarians. The investigation took nine months to complete and submit to the court. The case remained ongoing at year’s end.
According to human rights defenders, approximately 2,000 complaints of rape were registered annually, but fewer than 1 percent of them made it to court.
Legislation identifies various types of domestic violence, such as physical, psychological, sexual, and economic, and outlines the responsibilities of local and national governments and NGOs in providing support to domestic violence victims. The law also outlines mechanisms for the issuance of restraining orders and provides for the 24-hour administrative detention of abusers. The law sets the maximum sentence for spousal assault and battery at 10 years in prison, the same as for any assault. The law also permits prohibiting offenders from living with the victim if the perpetrator has somewhere else to live, allows victims of domestic violence to receive appropriate care regardless of the place of residence, and replaces financial penalties with administrative arrest if paying fines was hurting victims as well as perpetrators.
NGOs estimated that on average 12 women each day were subjected to domestic violence and more than 400 women died annually as a result of violence sustained from their spouses. Due in part to social stigma, research conducted by the Ministry of National Economy indicated that a majority of victims of partner abuse never told anyone of their abuse. Police intervened in family disputes only when they believed the abuse was life threatening. Police often encouraged the two parties to reconcile. NGOs also noted that the lenient penalty for domestic violence–an administrative offense with a maximum penalty of 15 days’ imprisonment–does not deter even convicted offenders.
In August 2019 the Almaty city court placed Baurzhan Ashigaliyev under pretrial arrest for two months on charges of deprivation of freedom and assault against his wife, well-known singer Kseniya Ashigaliyeva. According to Ashigaliyeva, her husband of seven years regularly beat her, but previous reports to police had resulted in no change in his behavior and no penalty to him. In July 2019 he abducted Ashigaliyeva off the street, tied her up in the basement of a building, and beat her severely. Ashigaliyeva turned to police and also the NeMolchi (Speak Out) movement for help, asking the organization to raise awareness of her case and share photographs of her injuries on the internet in order to reduce stigma against speaking out about domestic violence. On March 13, Almaty court acquitted Ashigaliyev. His wife appealed the court ruling, but the Almaty city court declined her appeal in June and upheld the trial court’s ruling.
The government maintained domestic violence shelters in each region. According to the NGO Union of Crisis Centers, there were 31 crisis centers throughout the country providing reliable services to women and children who are victims of domestic violence, including 10 government-funded shelters.
Human rights activists noted an upsurge of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, which they attributed to several causes. When tight quarantine was imposed on the country, families were locked in their houses, and some individuals began to experience emotional problems because there was no way to vent emotions. According to these activists, many persons lacked the skills to control anger. The fear of COVID-19 exacerbated the negative emotional atmosphere. Alcohol consumption was often an aggravating factor. Assailants often seized the victims’ telephone and cut them off from communication with the outside world. Because of the lockdown, victims could not leave their houses to escape from their assailants, stay with relatives, or elsewhere.
Activists criticized the government for failure to ensure that all vulnerable persons–women, men, children, elderly individuals, and persons with disabilities–were protected against domestic violence. Due to COVID-19 quarantines, some crisis centers were closed, health care was limited, and law enforcement agencies and courts were focused on quarantine-related tasks. When victims found the courage to report violence, activists reported that police were reluctant to act, sometimes did not issue restrictive orders to assailants, and tried to dissuade the victim from filing a complaint, creating an environment of impunity for aggressors.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Although prohibited by law, the practice of kidnapping women and girls for forced marriage continued in some remote areas. The law prescribes a prison sentence of seven to 12 years for conviction of kidnapping. A person who voluntarily releases an abductee is absolved of criminal responsibility; because of this law, a typical bride kidnapper is not necessarily held criminally responsible. Law enforcement agencies often advised abductees to resolve their situations themselves. According to civil society organizations, making a complaint to police could be a very bureaucratic process and often subjected families and victims to humiliation.
In December 2019 a 20-year-old girl was kidnapped at a bus stop in Turkestan. Three men grabbed her and forced her into their car. The kidnappers took her to another town, Kentau, and pressured her to marry a man whom she barely knew. The girl was held against her will for two days. When she refused to marry the man, he physically assaulted and raped her. The girl managed to escape and return home, where she submitted a complaint to police. After the complaint was filed, the girl and her parents faced pressure from the local community and the kidnapper’s family. As a result of this campaign of pressure and humiliation, the girl and her mother attempted suicide. The investigation was completed in January, and two men were convicted and sentenced to 7 and 8 years in prison.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment remained a problem. No law protects women from sexual harassment, and only force or taking advantage of a victim’s physical helplessness carries criminal liability in terms of sexual assault. In no instance was the law used to protect the victim, nor were there reports of any prosecutions. Victims of sexual harassment in the workplace were hesitant to lodge complaints out of shame or fear of job loss.
Reproductive Rights: By law couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. They have the right to manage their reproductive health, and they have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Individuals have the right to use contraception and generally have access to it through individual health care providers.
There are no legal, social, or cultural barriers to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth. Over 95 percent of pregnant women benefit from prenatal care and more than 99 percent of births were attended by skilled medical personnel, according to World Health Organization reporting.
Access to government-provided sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of violence is limited but improving. In April 2020, with UN Population Fund assistance, the national government adopted its first clinical protocol for health assistance to victims of gender violence and organized online training for the staff of primary health centers. The UN Population Fund also arranged training for health workers, police, and social workers to strengthen coordination of their work in detecting and handling incidents of violence against women.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The constitution and law provide for equal rights and freedoms for men and women. The law prohibits discrimination based on gender. Significant salary gaps between men and women remained a serious problem. According to observers, women in rural areas faced greater discrimination than women in urban areas and suffered from a greater incidence of domestic violence, limited education and employment opportunities, limited access to information, and discrimination in their land and other property rights.
Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived both by birth within the country’s territory and from one’s parents. The government registers all births upon receipt of the proper paperwork, which may come from the parents, other interested persons, or the medical facility where the birth occurred. Children born to undocumented mothers were denied birth certificates.
Education: According to the constitution, secondary school education is compulsory. The government provides for free, universal secondary education in public schools. Some children did not attend schools. Education authorities reported that 55 percent of schools were equipped and had staff for inclusive education for children with specific needs. Independent observers alleged that the number of such schools was in fact lower. There were no statistics on the number of children with disabilities who attended preschool institutions. Twenty percent of children with specific needs between the ages of 7 and 18 attended regular schools. The majority attended special correctional classes or were homeschooled. Some parents refused to send children with disabilities to school and viewed their education as unnecessary. Other parents did not know where they could refer their children. Some children from migrant families, particularly undocumented migrants and stateless persons, did not get education because they could not enroll in school.
Child Abuse: Human rights defenders demanded improvement of legislation to protect children from abuse, to include a clearer definition of the authority of the children’s ombudsman and a legislative ban on corporal punishment.
Child abuse is a serious problem. According to UNICEF polls, 75 percent of adults supported corporal punishment of children by parents. According to a survey, 40 percent of children in institutions and 18 percent of children attending regular schools said they were subjected to physical abuse by adults. Children faced abuse, cruel, and disparaging treatment in families, schools (particularly special schools for delinquent children), and boarding schools.
Police reported that approximately 1,000 individuals were annually deprived of their parental rights. During the first five months of the year, more than 300 parents lost their parental rights, and more than 2,000 parents were punished by administrative penalties for failure to perform parenting duties.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18, but it may be reduced to 16 in the case of pregnancy or mutual agreement, including by parents or legal guardians. According to the UN Population Fund, approximately 3,000 early and forced marriages occurred annually. Many couples first married in mosques and then registered officially when the bride reached the legal age. The government did not take action to address the issue.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law does not specify the minimum age for consensual sex, but it provides for eight to 15 years in prison for individuals convicted of forcing boys or girls younger than age 18 to have sexual intercourse. UNICEF reported that data on sexual abuse of children, child prostitution, child pornography, child trafficking, bride kidnapping, and forced marriage of girls remains scarce, making it difficult to assess the scale of rights violations.
The law criminalizes the production and distribution of child pornography and provides administrative penalties to cover the sale of pornographic materials to minors. The country retains administrative penalties for child pornography. Perpetrators convicted of sexual offenses against minors received a lifetime ban on working with children.
Sexual abuse and rape remained serious problems. Available police statistics showed a 49 percent increase in the number of rapes of children during the first eight months of the year, compared with the same period in 2019.
On July 24, a 5-year-old girl went missing in Satpayev town near Karaganda city, where she and her parents were visiting with relatives. Police and volunteers scoured the neighborhood and finally found the girl bound under a sofa in the apartment of a 58-year-old man. She was taken to the hospital, and police arrested the man. An angry crowd formed and wanted to punish the alleged pedophile themselves. Reportedly, the crowd gathered because the participants did not trust police, since abusers apparently go unpunished. (Note: According to human rights defenders, 39 percent of perpetrators of crimes against children were convicted by courts.) The crowd tried to break into the apartment and demanded that police hand the man over. Calls by police, local government officials, and local imams on the crowd to calm down had no effect. The crowd smashed windows and doors at the building and the local police station, and smashed and set fire to police vehicles. Authorities deployed riot police, and the crowd dispersed. The next day Minister of Internal Affairs Yerlan Turgumbaev stated publicly that the suspect was charged with kidnapping and raping a child. Authorities reported the suspect was found dead on October 6 in the detention facility.
Displaced Children: Human rights observers noted that the number of street children, mainly in large cities, was high. Street children were referred to Centers for Delinquent Children or the Support Center for Children in Difficult Life Situations. Some were returned to their families. According to the 2019 report of the Committee for Protection of Children Rights of the Ministry of Education and Science, there were 15 adaptation centers (AC) for delinquent children and 17 support centers (SC) for children in difficult life situations. More than 4,000 children were held in the ACs, and more than 2,000 in the SCs.
Institutionalized Children: Incidents of child abuse in state-run institutions, such as orphanages, boarding schools, and detention facilities for delinquent children, were “not rare,” according to government sources. NGOs stated one-half the children in orphanages or closed institutions suffered from abuse by teachers or other children. According to the Committee for Protection of Children Rights, the number of orphans who lived in orphanages decreased from 6,223 in 2017 to 4,606 during the year. The government continued its policy of closing orphanages and referring children to foster families and other forms of home care. Activists criticized the policy as ineffective because of the lack of a clear plan of children’s deinstitutionalization, properly trained staff, infrastructure, or funds. They alleged that authorities focused on the closure of orphanages instead of working with families and preventing the placement of children in institutions. They also said critical decisions on the removal of a child from its family and placement in an institution were based on police, not social workers’, reports.
Between April 2 and April 29, four children died at the Ayagoz Children’s Center for Specialized Social Services, a facility for children with mental disabilities. The management of the facility and the local government tried to conceal the deaths, but on May 14, information was leaked to media and became public. The government established an ad hoc group to investigate the deaths. The group discovered numerous violations in their investigation. The report stated that the deaths were the result of underestimating the seriousness of child health problems by medical staff and of delayed hospitalization. Children’s Rights Commissioner Aruzhan Sain called for a thorough investigation and highlighted past allegations of abuse against the facility. Police opened a criminal investigation.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at .
Leaders of the Jewish community estimated that the country’s Jewish population was 10,000. They reported no incidents of anti-Semitism by the government or in society.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, and access to health care, and in the provision of other government services, but significant discrimination existed. Human rights defenders were concerned about gaps in the country’s legislation. The law does not give a clear definition of discrimination, making it impossible to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, particularly in instances of indirect discrimination. The government took steps to remedy some barriers to persons with disabilities, including providing access to information. NGOs stated implementation of the law on disability was lacking. They also noted the ineffectiveness of government programs which were mere declarations. Their implementation was often marred with corruption and a lack of professionalism.
Employment remained a problem. One quarter of working age individuals with disabilities had jobs, according to a report in akron.kz. Activists noted that employers did not have sufficient incentives to hire persons with disabilities.
The law requires companies to set aside 3 percent of their jobs for persons with disabilities, and the government enacted high-level enforcement measures to enhance economic opportunities as part of the President’s Strategy 2050; nevertheless, there were reports persons with disabilities faced difficulty integrating into society and finding employment.
Some children with Down syndrome were able to attend privately funded specialized education centers, but the centers had limited capacity, which resulted in long waiting periods of up to 1.5 years.
Human rights observers noted multiple types of discrimination against persons with disabilities; doctors discouraged women who use wheelchairs from having children; and the treatment of prisoners with disabilities in detention facilities remained a serious problem.
The COVID-19 lockdown seriously affected persons with disabilities. Many persons with disabilities lost their jobs in sectors where telework was not possible. Additionally, without public transportation due to the lockdown, many had no way to commute, and taxi services did not work. School and university students with disabilities faced similar problems. If they did not have home computers, they were left with no access to online classes. Another problem during the quarantine lockdown was the closure of health facilities, which left medical support unavailable for persons with disabilities, both adults and children.
The lack of online access to information was a particularly serious problem during the lockdown for those with disabilities. It was impossible to reach call centers on the telephone, because most offices used for services were closed. The majority of persons with disabilities have low incomes and cannot afford to pay for internet access. Also, most of the rural areas have no internet. Another problem was that websites were not designed for users with disabilities, such as for persons who are blind. Human rights defenders reported that individuals with disabilities were frequently left without relief support (food baskets, money) extended to them by the government, because negligent government clerks forgot to add them into lists of recipients.
The government did not legally restrict the right of persons with disabilities to vote and arranged home voting for individuals who could not travel to accessible polling places. In 2018 election law was amended to mandate unhindered access to polling stations for persons with specific needs. Election monitoring NGO Yerkindik Kannaty reported positive cooperation with the CEC on implementing these requirements. The NGO observed that more polling stations were accessible during the year compared with previous elections.
There are no regulations regarding the rights of patients in mental hospitals. Human rights observers believed this led to widespread abuse of patients’ rights. NGOs reported that patients often experienced poor conditions and a complete lack of privacy. Citizens with mental disabilities may be committed to state-run institutions without their consent or judicial review, and the government committed persons younger than age 18 with the permission of their families.
According to an NPM report, most of the hospitals required extensive renovations. Other problems observed included shortage of personnel, unsatisfactory sanitary conditions, poor food supply, overcrowding, and lack of light and air.
Members of the NPM may visit mental hospitals to monitor conditions and signs of possible torture of patients.
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
The official policy for languages in the country is termed trilingualism. Kazakh is the official state language, Russian has equal status as the language of interethnic communication, and English is the language of successful integration into global economics. The law requires that presidential candidates are fluent in Kazakh. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on language, but all prospective civil servants are required to pass a Kazakh language exam.
The constitution and law prohibit discrimination based on race or ethnic origin. Ethnic minorities, however, faced problems in various areas of life. In May the government set up a Committee on Development of Interethnic Relations as part of the Ministry of Information and Social Development. The new committee is responsible for implementation of the government policy on interethnic relations, and the Institute of Ethnic-Political Studies under the ministry performs analysis and research and provides expert professional recommendations on government policy.
At the high levels of national government, three of the 23 cabinet members were non-Kazakhs. Ethnic minorities were underrepresented in other government bodies as well. Human rights observers noted that ethnic minorities were not incorporated into the country’s social and political mechanisms and their role was shrinking. They also noted that the government should–but did not–provide minorities equal participation in social life, equal access to government service, equal business opportunities, and most importantly, equal treatment before the law. Observers further noted that pushing a significant part of the population out from the country’s social and political field (marginalizing) would likely result in social tension.
On February 8, riots broke out in Masanchi, Sortobe, Bular Batyr, and Aukhatty villages in Qorday district. The riots were provoked by the following two incidents the day before the riots: a road traffic incident in which an elderly man was beaten by men of Dungan origin, and a fight between local Dungans and ethnic Kazakh police officers. Information about the incidents was shared in the community and on social media, and as a result rioting began and led to looting and the destruction of homes. Thousands of Dungans fled to the neighboring Kyrgyz Republic. Authorities declared an emergency situation in the Qorday district, deployed police special forces, and established police checkpoints around the four villages. Authorities launched more than 120 criminal investigations, 11 of them on homicide charges. Prosecutors reported that 11 victims died and dozens of rioters were arrested. There were 192 individuals, including 19 policemen, injured, and 168 houses and 122 vehicles were damaged. The province governor, his deputy, several other senior government officials, and police officers were dismissed. On March 1, President Tokayev visited the region and met with local residents. He stated that the riots were a result of a conflict between two organized criminal groups that were fighting for control over illegal economic activities.
On April 24, the Qorday local court convicted two participants of the February riots. Ersman Yunhu was sentenced to 2.5 years of restriction of freedom and six months of correction works. His son, Marat Yunhu, received 2.5 years of imprisonment.
Observers criticized authorities for failing to admit that the violence was primarily aimed against Dungans, since the majority of the destroyed property was owned by Dungans, and 10 ethnic-Dungan citizens were killed, compared with a single ethnic-Kazakh citizen. On May 14, the Association of Dungans in Kazakhstan appealed to the UN and other international organizations to urge the country’s authorities to stop persecution, stop violations of the rights of Dungans, and hold accountable those who were responsible for torture and abuse. The association also called for an independent investigation of the February 8 incident, for restitution of the damage inflicted during the riots, and for punishment of those who disseminate anti-Dungan, offensive, and hateful statements in media and social media.
In May prosecutors reported that they were investigating 29 criminal cases with 59 suspects charged for homicide, mass disorder, attempts on lives of law enforcement officers, theft, and looting.
In August the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviewed information about the Qorday incident and requested that the government provide a response before October 30; “conduct [an] effective, impartial and transparent investigation of the events;” ensure effective protection of the Dungan minority; provide reparation, including health and psychological support; and guarantee access by independent observers to the Qorday district. By year’s end there was no publicly released response from the government.
According to the constitution, no one shall be subjected to any discrimination for reasons of origin; occupational, social, or property status; sex; race; nationality; language; religion or belief; place of residence; or any other circumstances. The country does not criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity.
Although gender reassignment documentation exists, the law requires a transgender person to fulfill psychiatric and physical requirements (such as undergoing gender reassignment surgery) before being able to receive identity documents that align with the person’s outward gender. Many individuals lived with nonconforming documents for years and reported problems with securing employment, housing, and health care. Activists expressed concerns about the country’s new health law passed in July. The law sets the age of eligibility for gender reassignment at 21 (note: the UN Human Rights Council recommends 18). The law also added behavioral disorders to the reasons for denial of gender reassignment, which expanded the categories of persons who could be denied such treatments.
Prosecutions of anti-LGBTI violence were rare. There were reports of anti-LGBTI violence, but there were no government statistics on discrimination or violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity. According to a 2017 NGO survey within the LGBTI community, 48 percent of respondents experienced violence or hate because of their sexual orientation, and 56 percent responded they knew someone who suffered from violence. The most frequent forms of abuse were verbal insults, harassment, interference in private life, and physical assaults.
NGOs reported members of the LGBTI community seldom turned to law enforcement agencies to report violence against them because they feared hostility, ridicule, and violence. They were reluctant to use mechanisms such as the national commissioner for human rights to seek remedies for harms inflicted because they did not trust these mechanisms to safeguard their identities, especially with regard to employment.
In September 2019 Nur-Sultan police reported that two men were under pretrial detention for the investigation of sexual assault, beating, and extortion of a 21-year-old gay man in July. A medical examination showed that the man sustained serious injuries after he was attacked in an apartment. In December 2019 a court sentenced each abuser to six years of incarceration.
Activists told media that beating, extortion, and harassment of LGBTI individuals were not uncommon, although typically unreported. Human rights activists reported that the COVID-19 pandemic situation also impacted LGBTI communities negatively. Locked down in their houses, they often endured stress and abuse from family members who resented their status. Transgender persons were vulnerable to abuse during security checks by police patrols due to their lack of appropriate identification. Transgender persons were among the first whom employers dismissed from jobs because they often worked without official contracts, and they were often not eligible to relieve programs offered by the government to support needy individuals. Transgender persons, like many during the lockdowns, also faced difficulties receiving needed medical care because health facilities were restricted or closed. They often could not get necessary medicines, because they were not available in small pharmacies in their neighborhoods, or they could not afford them.
In July 2019 Victoria Berkkhodjayeva, a transgender woman serving a sentence in Zhaugashty, Almaty region, told authorities that she had been raped three times by a KNB officer. Berkkhodjayeva reported the incident to the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Anticorruption Agency. Almaty region police launched an investigation. In October 2019 media further reported that authorities had placed Sani Abdikash, the KNB officer suspected of rape, under arrest based on the results of forensic tests. On February 18, court proceedings began in a district court in Almaty province. In October, the Ile district court in Almaty found Abdikash guilty of rape and sentenced him to five and one-half years of imprisonment.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS, but stigma remained and resulted in societal discrimination that continued to affect access to information, services, treatment, and care. The National Center for AIDS provides free diagnosis and treatment to all citizens.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for workers’ right to unionize but limits workers’ freedom of association. The law restricted workers’ freedom of association by requiring all labor unions to affiliate with higher-level unions. On May 4, the government enacted amendments to labor-related laws, including the trade union law, to bring them closer to compliance with International Labor Organization (ILO) standards, in particular, the convention on freedom of association. The amendments removed the requirement that lower-level unions affiliate with higher-level sectoral-, territorial-, and national-level federations. The amendments also lowered membership requirements and simplified other registration requirements.
The government exercised considerable influence on organized labor and favored state-affiliated unions over independent ones. The Federation of Trade Unions of the Republic of Kazakhstan (FTUK) is the successor to state-sponsored Soviet-era labor organizations and is the largest national trade union association, with approximately 90 percent of union members on its rolls. In 2018 the International Trade Union Confederation suspended the membership of the FTUK due to a lack of independence.
In July 2019 a court in Shymkent sentenced Yerlan Baltabay, the leader of an independent union of petrochemical workers, to seven years’ imprisonment for embezzlement of union dues. Human rights observers noted the parallels between Baltabay’s case and the investigation and ultimate conviction of Larisa Kharkova in 2017 and asserted that Baltabay was also targeted for his independent labor union activism. Baltabay appealed to the president for pardon, admitting his guilt and promising to compensate inflicted damages, and President Tokayev granted pardon in August 2019. In September 2019 Baltabay published an open letter on the website of the Human Rights Bureau, reasserting his innocence in the case and stating that he had only asked for pardon at the urging of the KNB. Baltabay did not repay the claimed damages, and authorities returned him to prison in October 2019. On March 20, he was released, but he remained banned from any public activity, including trade union activities, for the next seven years.
The law provides for the right of workers to bargain collectively. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination, and a court may order reinstatement of a worker fired for union activity. Penalties for violations of these provisions included fines and imprisonment of up to 75 days, but these penalties did not deter violations. Penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights. According to the FTUK, as of January, 98 percent of large and medium enterprises had collective agreements. Overall, 41.2 percent of all working enterprises had collective agreements.
The country’s three national-level labor unions–the FTUK with two million members, Commonwealth of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan Amanat with 300,000 members, and Kazakhstan Confederation of Labor (KCL) with up to 800,000 members–had more than three million members, or 40 percent of the workforce, as of March 1. These three labor unions, jointly, consist of 24 industry trade unions, 17 regional trade unions, and more than 18,000 local trade unions. Another trade union, Yntymak, with more than 57,000 members, was established in 2018 to represent small and medium enterprises. The law provides for the right to strike in principle but imposes onerous restrictions that make strikes unlikely. For example, the right to strike may be granted only after the dispute is brought to a reconciliatory commission for consideration. It may take more than forty days to initiate the strike in accordance with the law, trade union members reported. In addition, by law there are a variety of circumstances in which strikes are illegal. A blanket legal restriction bars certain occupations from conducting a strike. Military and other security service members, emergency medical, fire, and rescue crews, as well as those who operate “dangerous” production facilities are forbidden to strike. By law such strikes are illegal.
Workers employed in the railway, transport and communications, civil aviation, healthcare, and public utilities sectors may strike, but only if they maintain minimum services to the public–that is, provided there is no harm caused to other individuals. Numerous legal limitations restrict workers’ right to strike in other industries as well. Generally, workers may not strike unless a labor dispute cannot be resolved through compulsory arbitration procedures. Decisions to strike must be taken in a meeting where at least one-half of an enterprise’s workers are present. A written notice announcing a strike must be submitted to the employer at least five days in advance.
Officials are suspected of inflicting violence in response to supposed unlawful attempts to associate. Police were accused of beating labor and civil rights activist Dulat Agadil, who died in February of unconfirmed causes while in pretrial detention, after he was arrested for his suspected links to the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement.
Employers may fire striking workers after a court declares a strike illegal. The 2014 law also enabled the government to target labor organizers by imposing criminal charges and up to three years in prison for calls to participate in strikes declared illegal by the court. Amendments to the law during the year softened the penalty for such calls. If the calls for strikes did not result in a material violation of rights and interests of other individuals, they would be classified as minor criminal offenses, and the penalty would be limited to a fine or community service.
The law limits worker rights to make claims on their employers. For example, one article requires employers to negotiate any labor-related act with official employee representatives. If there are multiple official representatives, they have five days in which to form a working group to discuss the proposed act. If the group cannot come to consensus, the employer may accept the act without the consent of the employees. The amendments annulled the previous clause that allowed an employer to dismiss an employee, as long as a compensation allowance is paid per the labor contract. Another article lists 25 reasons an employer may fire a worker. Another provision mandates the employer to respond to a resolution of the Council for Labor Protection within 15 days.
Disagreements between unions and their employers may be presented to a tripartite commission composed of representatives of the government, labor unions, and employer associations. State-affiliated and independent labor unions participate in tripartite commissions. The tripartite commission is responsible for developing and signing annual agreements governing most aspects of labor relations. The FTUK, Amanat, and KCL established a working group on May 28 to draft the general agreement for 2021-23. They recommended that the government and employers increase the minimum wage, change the minimum subsistence allowance, establish a minimum basket of consumer goods, and negotiate on other social matters.
Foreign workers have the right to join unions, but the law prohibits the operation of foreign unions and the financing of unions by foreign entities, such as foreign citizens, governments, and international organizations. Irregular migrants and self-employed individuals resided in the country were not per se exempt from the law. Approximately two million of the 8.8 million economically active citizens were self-employed as of March.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, except when it is a consequence of a court sentencing or a condition of a state of emergency or martial law. Penalties were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.
The law provides for punishment of convicted traffickers and those who facilitated forced exploitation and trafficking, including labor recruiters who hired workers through deliberately fraudulent or deceptive offers with the intent to subject them to forced labor, or employers or labor agents who confiscated passports or travel documents to keep workers in a state of involuntary servitude. Conviction of trafficking in persons for the purpose of labor and sexual exploitation is punishable by penalties that are sufficient to deter violations. Conviction of kidnapping and illegal deprivation of freedom with the purpose of labor or sexual exploitation is also punishable by penalties that were considered sufficient to deter violations.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection is responsible for conducting checks of employers to reveal labor law violations, including exploitation of foreign workers. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for identifying victims of forced labor and sexual exploitation and initiating criminal proceedings. The government effectively enforced laws to identify domestic victims of sexual exploitation, but it did not effectively enforce laws to identify foreign and domestic victims of labor trafficking. The statistics on identification of foreign victims remained low; three foreign victims were identified in 2019–two victims of forced begging and one victim of labor exploitation. Police conducted interagency operations to find victims of forced labor. Identification of forced labor victims, however, remained low and even decreased twice compared with 2018. Of 40 victims identified in 2019, 35 were victims of sexual exploitation, three were victims of labor exploitation, and two were victims of forced begging. In 2019 police investigated 102 criminal cases of human trafficking, and courts convicted eight traffickers, all for sexual exploitation.
Migrant workers were considered most at risk for forced or compulsory labor. In 2019 according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 1.6 million persons were registered as migrants in the country. The majority of migrant workers came from Uzbekistan, but there were also lesser numbers from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Migrant workers found employment primarily in agriculture and construction. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection is responsible for handling matters related to migrant labor. In 2017 the government adopted a new Concept of Migration Policy for 2017-21 and an accompanying implementation plan. Together, these changes addressed both internal and external modern challenges, such as the excess of low-skilled labor due to increased inflow of labor migrants from other Central Asian countries and the deficiency of high-skilled labor in some sectors of the economy due to a low level of education.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The general minimum age for employment is 16. With parental permission, however, children ages 14 through 16 may perform light work that did not interfere with their health or education. The law prohibits minors from engaging in hazardous work and restricts the length of the workday for employees younger than 18.
The law prohibits all the worst forms of child labor; however, gaps existed in the legal framework to protect children adequately from the worst forms of child labor. Prohibitions against the worst forms of child labor include criminal punishment under the law. Conviction of violation of minimum age employment in hazardous work, engaging minors in pornographic shows or production of materials containing pornographic images of minors, coercion of minors into prostitution, kidnapping or illegal deprivation of freedom of a minor for the purpose of exploitation, and trafficking in minors are punishable by penalties that were commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for investigating criminal offenses and training criminal police in investigating the worst forms of child labor.
The law provides for noncriminal punishments for violations of the law, including written warnings, suspensions, terminations, the withdrawal of licenses for specific types of activities, administrative penalties or fines, and administrative arrest (only by court decision and only up to 15 days for violation of legislation in relation to minors). Such violations include employment of minors without an employment agreement, which is punishable by fine with suspension of the employer’s license. Untimely or incorrect payment of salaries, nonprovision of vacation or time off, excessive work hours, and discrimination in the workplace are also punishable by fines. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection is responsible for enforcement of child labor law and for administrative offenses punishable by fines.
The government has established institutional mechanisms for the enforcement of child labor law and regulations, but the government did not always effectively enforce the law. The complaint mechanism does not allow for anonymous individuals to report labor violations and, in 2019 no case of child labor was reported to government hotlines.
Sporadic instances of children working below the country’s minimum age of employment were reported in agriculture, including producing vegetables, weeding, and collecting worms; in construction; in the markets and streets, including transporting and selling items; in domestic work; in gas stations, car washing, and working as bus conductors; or as waiters in restaurants. There were no reports of child victims of forced labor in the sectors noted above, nor was there evidence of children being compelled or forced into such work through slavery, debt bondage, or trafficking for purposes of labor exploitation. In October media reported cotton harvesters in the country and stated they have a lack of workers, who are normally supplied by neighboring Uzbekistan. Because of this, farmers have been reliant on employing children and teenagers to work in cotton fields. Schoolchildren were spotted in fields in the Maktaaral and Zhetisay districts of the southern Turkestan region. Local farmers are traditionally aided by migrant workers from Uzbekistan, but that labor supply was interrupted by travel restrictions imposed to contain the two countries’ COVID-19 outbreaks. These forms of labor were determined by local legislation to be potentially hazardous and categorized as the worst forms of child labor. The majority of such situations occur on family farms or in family businesses.
There were 10 instances of children being used in hazardous activities, including one case of trafficking in minors for the purpose of sexual exploitation, five cases of the coercion of minors into prostitution, two cases of the engagement of minors into pornographic activities, and two cases of violation of labor legislation related to the engagement of children in works that are not allowed for children younger than age 18. In the last case, two boys (ages 13 and 15) died of carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping overnight in the cafe where they worked as waiters.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
By law transgender individuals are effectively barred from working in law enforcement agencies or serving in the military. Law and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on gender, age, disability, race, ethnicity, language, place of residence, religion, political opinion, affiliation with tribe or class, public associations, or property, social, or official status. The law does not specifically prohibit discrimination with respect to laws related to employment and occupation based on sexual orientation, gender identity, HIV-positive status, or having other communicable diseases. The law prohibits specific listed conditions or diseases to work in law enforcement agencies or serve in the military. The government effectively enforced the law and regulations. Discrimination is an administrative offense punishable by a fine that is not sufficient to deter violations. Some cases like illegal termination of labor contracts due to pregnancy, disability, or minority are considered criminal offenses and are punishable by penalties which are sufficient to deter violations related to civil rights, such as election interference.
Discrimination, however, occurred with respect to employment and occupation for persons with disabilities, transgender persons, orphans, and former convicts. Transgender persons experienced workplace discrimination and have been repeatedly fired for their identity. Disability NGOs reported that despite government efforts, obtaining employment was difficult for persons with disabilities. The law does not require equal pay for equal work for women and men. NGOs reported no government body assumes responsibility for implementing antidiscrimination legislation and asserted the law’s definition of gender discrimination did not comply with international standards.
The law prohibits women from performing work in harmful conditions that require them to lift or move heavy loads. On August 6, Human Rights Commissioner Elvira Azimova proposed to amend the law to provide for equal labor rights for men and women by repealing the list of harmful and hazardous occupations prohibited for women. She particularly asked for elimination of the provision to deny employment to a female applicant in nuclear power, oil and gas, metals and mining, or petrochemical industries if working conditions are not deemed safe. In response, and in line with the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the country committed to annul the list of hazardous industries to specify equal access to all jobs.
In June 2019 a fight occurred at the Chevron-operated Tengiz oilfield between local and foreign workers, resulting in 45 injuries. A leading cause of the conflict was discontent among local workers who complained of wage discrepancy between local and foreign workers with similar qualifications. Following the incident the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection launched a series of inspections at companies employing foreign workers. The ministry reported the following violations: 1) foreign workers were paid 30-50 percent more than local workers; 2) local workers were paid in local currency, while foreign workers were paid in U.S. dollars; and 3) some foreign workers occupied positions that differed from that described on the work permits. These violations are punishable by fines, annulment of work permits, or deportation of a company’s foreign workforce. In February media reported the governor of a province bordering China stated he would seek the deportation of dozens of Chinese workers to defuse the local population’s fears of COVID-19.
In December 2019 the Labor and Social Protection Ministry and the Prosecutor General’s Office discovered 930 violations of law in 95 companies that employed foreigners. The most frequent violations revealed by the inspection included labor done by foreign workers that did not correspond to their work permits and discrepancies between education and job positions of foreign workers. In February Minister of Labor and Social Protection Birzhan Nurymbetov threatened companies that provide unequal living conditions for local and foreign workers with administrative actions. The ministry intended annually to inspect companies that employ more than 250 persons, including more than 30 foreign workers. Article 1 of the labor law was amended in May to provide for equal pay and equal working and living conditions with no discrimination.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
During the year the national monthly minimum wage was 42,500 tenge ($106) and above the poverty line, which the Bureau of National Statistics reported was 32,688 tenge ($81) per month. In April media reported the Health Care and Social Development Ministry blamed regional governments for failing to provide personal protective equipment and other necessary supplies to hospital workers on the front line of the battle against COVID-19. In some regions doctors complained about a shortage of equipment, test kits, and specialists in rural hospitals. A doctor from Jambyl province reportedly said she was the only infectious disease specialist on hand to deal with COVID-19 patients at the main hospital in the Merki district, which has an estimated 85,000 inhabitants. For two days in early April, she had to come to work with a high fever after contracting COVID-19 from a patient. She reportedly stated that medics received up to six face masks a day, but eventually nurses were ordered to make masks.
As of August 2018, the government reported that 1.3 million citizens of a nine-million-person workforce were not registered as either employed or unemployed, meaning that they likely worked in the informal economy. A Ministry of Finance spokesperson separately reported during the year that up to one-third of workers were engaged in the informal economy, referencing 2015 government and international organization statistics. These workers were concentrated in the retail trade, transport services, agriculture, real estate, beauty and hair dressing salons, and laundry and dry-cleaning businesses. Small entrepreneurs and their employees for the most part work without health, social, or pension benefits.
In May the Center for Development of Human Resources forecasted that, due to the pandemic, more than 2.5 million workers likely would lose income or be temporarily laid off. The largest layoffs or temporary job suspensions would affect accommodation and catering services, leisure and entertainment, trade, transportation and warehousing, and construction. In August the government reported assisting 743,000 individuals with vocational training, permanent employment, or temporary employment.
The law stipulates the normal workweek should not exceed 40 hours and limits heavy manual labor or hazardous work to no more than 36 hours per week. The law limits overtime to two hours per day, or one hour per day for heavy manual labor, and requires overtime to be paid at least at a 50 percent premium. The law prohibits compulsory overtime and overtime for work in hazardous conditions. The law provides that labor agreements may stipulate the length of working time, holidays, and paid annual leave for each worker. By law employees are entitled to 24 days of paid annual leave per year.
The government sets occupational health and safety standards. The law requires employers to suspend work that could endanger the life or health of workers and to warn workers about any harmful or dangerous work conditions or the possibility of any occupational disease. The occupational safety and health standards are set and inspected by government experts. The law specifically grants workers the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without suffering adverse employment action.
Overtime pay for holiday and after-hours work is equal to 1.5 times regular salary. The decision on pay is made by the employer or in compliance with a collective agreement, and the amount of pay is based on so-called industry-specific wage multipliers, stipulated by industrial agreements.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection enforces the minimum wage, workhour restrictions, overtime, and occupational safety and health standards. By law labor inspectors have the right to conduct announced and unannounced inspections of workplaces to detect violations. Both types of inspections take place only after written notification. Violations of law are considered administrative offenses, not criminal ones. Penalties for violations of minimum wage and overtime law were not commensurate with crimes like fraud. For example, a minimal punishment for fraud is a fine of approximately 2.7 million tenge ($6,500) or imprisonment for up to two years, while violations of wage or overtime payment provisions result in fines from 84,000 tenge to 272,000 tenge ($200 to $650). Penalties for violations of occupational health and safety law were also not commensurate with crimes like negligence. The latter is a criminal offense and punished either by fines or public/corrective works, or by the five-year maximum term of imprisonment. Violation of the labor safety requirements may result in notification or fines.
Inspections based on risk assessment reports are announced in writing not less than 30 days before the beginning of the inspection. Unplanned inspections are announced not less than one day prior to the beginning of the inspection. Ministry inspectors conducted random inspections of employers. From January to June, inspectors conducted 1,900 inspections and detected 3,000 violations of the law, such as wage arrears, unsafe work conditions, and illegal employment or dismissal. The FTUK analyzed and concluded that unequal payments and work conditions of local and foreign workers, the increase and indexation of wages, and the absence of local labor unions in the companies were the main factors that caused social tension in 2019.
In February the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection reported that the country has 260 labor inspectors, or one inspector per every 23,000 workers, while the ILO recommends one inspector per every 10,000 employees. The law does not allow labor inspectors to respond to violations without the permission of the prosecutor’s office and a notification to the employer.
The law provides for so-called employer’s declarations. Under this system, labor inspectors may extend a certificate of trust to enterprises that complied with labor legislation requirements. Certified enterprises are exempt from labor inspections for the three-year period. In the opinion of labor rights activists, the practice may worsen labor conditions and conceal problems. By law any enterprise or company may form a production council to address labor safety problems from representatives of an employer and employees. These councils are eligible to conduct their own inspections of the employees’ work conditions. As of January 2019, there were 12,855 production councils and 17,751 volunteer labor inspectors.
There were reports some employers ignored regulations concerning occupational health and safety. Occupational safety and health conditions in the construction, industrial, and agricultural sectors often were substandard. Workers in factories sometimes lacked quality protective clothing and sometimes worked in conditions of poor visibility and ventilation. In 2019 the government reported 1,215 workplace injuries, of which 148 resulted in death. The government attributed many labor-related deaths to antiquated equipment, insufficient detection and prevention of occupational diseases in workers engaged in harmful labor, and disregard for safety regulations. The most dangerous jobs were in mining, construction, and oil and gas, according to an expert analysis of occupations with the highest fatalities. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection reported that in 2019, out of 1.6 million workers, more than 373,000 or 23 percent labored in hazardous conditions, 45.4 percent worked with high levels of noise and vibration, and 34.4 percent labored under high dust and gas levels.
Some companies tried to avoid payments to injured workers. Critics reported that employers, the FTUK, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection were more concerned with bureaucracy and filling out reports on work-related accidents than with taking measures to reduce their number. A minimal noncompliance with labor safety requirements may result in a company’s refusal to compensate workers for industrial injuries. According to activists, in 30 percent of cases, workers themselves were blamed for violating occupational health and safety regulations.
The Aktobe Labor Inspection blamed the management of the Aktobe Chromium Compound Plant for the May 28 accident in which two workers were injured and five died of chemical burns and poisoning while cleaning a tank used to hold hydroxyl. The Aktobe Labor Inspection assigned 80 percent of the blame for the accident to the employer for the breach of labor safety rules.