Strikes return to Zhanaozen ten years after the massacre

21 July, 2021

Striking workers camped in yurts in Zhanaozen
Striking workers camped in yurts in Zhanaozen

Ten years ago, a strike which had spread across Kazakhstan from the Caspian coast was violently crushed by police in Zhanaozen leaving more than 17 dead. This left workers silent for years, but this year strikes in the oil and gas sector have been growing across the Kazakh regions and several simultaneous strikes have broken out again in Zhanaozen, now spread across more companies. If they can achieve greater coordination and centralization than last time, the strikers will hold better cards against the companies that exploit them, as well as against state repression.

Table of Contents

The Zhanaozen Strikes in 2011

Documentary on the 2011 Zhanaozen strikes

In 2011 a strike broke out at oil companies on the Caspian coast. First at the Ersai company in the city of Aktau and then it spread to the main Aktau company, the Karazhanbasmunai. The latter company deals with the region’s oil and gas fields, and the strike spread across the region until it reached a small town 100 km from the coast, Zhanaozen. Workers from the local gas company, Ozenmunaigaz, joined the strike immediately.

However, the strike was quickly isolated and the workers were cornered by repressive forces in the city. They took up residence in their tents and yurts in Zhanaozen’s main square and resisted threats and killings of workers and their family members for months.

In December 2011, eight months after the strike began, riot police charged at strikers in the middle of a national holiday shooting live fire at workers and passers-by. This left at least 17 dead and hundreds arrested and tortured for breaching public order. The city was shrouded in silence for years, and anyone, local or foreign, who asked too many questions about what happened continued to be arrested and pressured.

A new wave of struggles comes to Zhanaozen

KMG-Security workers discuss in Zhanaozen with management while being videotaped by police
KMG-Security workers discuss in Zhanaozen with management while being videotaped by police

However, the situation is changing with respect to worker activity. Since last year strikes have been breaking out all over the oil and gas belt surrounding Russia: from wildcat strikes in the Amur to dozens of strikes in the Kazakh fields. And it is there where the strike movement that has triggered these weeks’ strikes in Zhanaozen began.

The strikes in the Kazakh hydrocarbon sector have largely broken out in the western half of the country, the most economically depressed and neglected, although they did not start on the Caspian coast. The strikes were concentrated earlier this year in Aktobe and Aksay, inland and next to the Russian border.

Although they sometimes involved workers from the large state-owned enterprises, most of these strikes arose among workers from service companies of all kinds that supply the large ones: technicians, mechanics, drivers. The strikes declined somewhat in the spring, but there were still strikes in Aktobe between April and May.

It was in June when strikes spread to the Caspian coast and returned to Zhanaozen. Similar to the fields in the north of the country, they broke out at enterprises serving the state-owned Ozenmunaigaz. The strikes came at first in a trickle.

A strike broke out at KEZBI in June. As the strikers denounced, the response of the local media was to confuse and lie by saying that their demands had been met when these were still pending. Then came the touring politicians in order to have their picture taken with the strikers while insisting that they were their “representatives”.

To the surprise of many, the strikers sent the politicians back where they had come from, signaling that something had changed in the strikers’ approaches. A week later a strike broke out at the security company for the Ozenmunaigaz fields, KMG-Security. Over a thousand of the company’s 1,200 employees went on strike and the company recruited a retired police officer to threaten the strikers. Meanwhile, the company announced that it wanted to lay off half of the workforce in order to “raise the wages of the rest.” The strikers kept the strike going and ended up bending the company’s arm last week.

Starting late last week, strikes have been breaking out faster and simultaneously at other companies, e.g., MuniSpetSnab’s salaried truckers went on strike and immediately the company hired scabs to replace them. Without giving up, the workers set up their tents again in the main square of Zhanaozen and are still there, where local people bring them food to continue their struggle. The haulers work under atrocious working conditions, exposed to toxic products and have to buy their own spare parts:

I drive a GAZelle van. On Saturdays I work until lunchtime. I have only one day off. I earn between 70 and 80 thousand tenge [roughly 150 dollars]. The work of the local guys is even harder. They go out day and night. The businessman says, “Where can we get money for you?”-our business is profitable though. We see money coming in every month. You know where it goes: it goes through three or four people. And we buy spare parts at our own expense. There are a lot of problems.”

Toward a mass strike in Zhanaozen

Assembly of workers at the gates of Kunan Holdings
Assembly of workers at the gates of Kunan Holdings

This Monday, workers at two more service companies have gone on strike, the truckers at Kunan Holdings and geophysical technicians at BatysGeofyzService. The workers have marched to join with MuniSpetSnab strikers under the tents. More workers joined yesterday, when Zhanaozen’s garbage collection and public cleaning workers went on strike.

Right now there are workers from half a dozen companies camped out in permanent and open assembly, incorporating workers from sectors that remain in apparent normality. Everything points to the fact that we may be in the first moments of a mass strike, spontaneously self-organized and centralized in an open assembly of workers at Zhanaozen.