Opposition politicians and civil rights activists expressed on Wednesday serious concern about government plans to significantly liberalize Armenia’s labor legislation that have already been approved by parliament.
The National Assembly passed a package of corresponding government-drafted amendments to the Armenian Labor Code in the first reading last week. In particular, they allow for verbal employment contracts and the formation of employee associations that could presumably overturn decisions made by labor unions. The amendments would also water down legal provisions regulating remuneration of overtime work and work during night hours.
The Armenian government has admitted that the changes reflect, in large measure, the opinion and wishes of entrepreneurs. The latter have for years been accused of routinely flouting provisions of the code that ban arbitrary dismissal of workers and guarantee other worker rights.
“It is evident that the changes are mainly aimed at facilitating business activity, and the government makes no secret of that,” Artsvik Minasian, a parliament deputy from the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), said at a roundtable discussion on the bill held in Yerevan. “And that means that employers’ interests are taking precedence over employees’ interests.”
Minasian, who is an economist by training, specifically objected to the amendment allowing the existence of alternative labor groups. “This provision can be used by employers for neutralizing labor unions with puppet structures” he said.
But Stepan Hayrapetian, a government expert who was involved in the drawing up of the bill, disagreed. He argued that the few labor unions operating in Armenia already rarely challenge business owners and managers over worker rights.
“Haven’t their activities been a formality?” said Hayrapetian. “Show me a place where [unions] have protected workers’ interests. We are trying to create competition so that they establish themselves. They don’t want to establish themselves right now.”
Meri Khachatrian, a lawyer working for the Armenian Center For Human Rights Protection, spoke out against the introduction of verbal contracts between employers and employees. She said that would make it even easier for entrepreneurs to cheat and arbitrarily fire their workers.
“I think that a written contract is the appropriate form of labor relationships and we should rule out any verbal arrangements,” said Khachatrian.
“The employers would have more possibilities of exploiting a worker,” agreed Minasian.
Hayrapetian dismissed such concerns, saying that employment contracts will still have to be formalized in writing. “An oral agreement will give birth to a signed legal contract which will be given to an employee,” he said without elaborating.
Another controversial amendment seems to essentially legalize child labor, which is banned by the Armenian constitution. Hayk Petrosian, a deputy minister of labor and social affairs present at the discussion, argued that many underage Armenians are already employed by private businesses. He claimed that legalization of this practice would only serve their interests.