Ukrainian war hits Georgian resort town

Photographer: Mariam Giunashvili

Edition: Labor

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, residents of Borjomi, Georgia did not expect to be directly affected. The war and subsequent sanctions, however, threatened the future of the town’s largest employer, IDS Borjomi Georgia. 

Prior to the invasion, IDS Borjomi Georgia had been good to the town and municipality at large. A reported 650 locals worked at the factory and jobs were a good career for local residents: the average salary was 2000 lari (around $680), although some staff earn as little as 850 lari. The business provided a strong tax base for the local government. 

After the war broke out, however, those jobs were at risk: Russian billionaire Mikhail Friedman owned 60 percent of the factory through his company Alfa-Group and once Friedman and Alfa-Group were swept up in the international sanctions, IDS Borjomi stopped operations and slashed salaries in half. The management threatened to fire anyone who did not agree to the change.

In response, workers from two parts of the plant went on strike from 6 am on May 31. Following 21 days of talks, the company offered them amended terms of their contracts due to the crisis, which most of the employees agreed to sign only if they received guarantees that they would return to the old contracts after the company resumed operations. However, the company did not guarantee this.

While some agreed to sign the new contracts following the strike, relations between the workers and management worsened due to the firing of 50 people—including some who signed the new contract. A general strike was called and 200 employees joined.

To resolve the crisis, the Georgian government joined the mediation talks and eventually agreed to take a 7.73 percent stake in the company, which allowed it to resume work. 

Today, nearly all the striking workers’ demands have been met and the 50 people who were fired have been reinstated. 

Andro Babliadze, 54

"When the war started, the company announced that there would be no bonuses and we understood this change due to the current events. Then they stopped providing transportation. We did not say anything about it. Then they stopped paying bonuses on birthdays. We kept silent. Then they presented us a new contract, which reduced our salaries by half. All the employees have financial responsibilities, almost all of them make monthly payments on bank loans and half of their salaries are not enough to make their bank payments. I do not know how we could have survived in those. We understood all the previous changes and we were ready to take a cut in our salaries, even if the crisis lasted for six months, but we demanded a promise that if everything went back to normal, we would get our old salaries back. They could not guarantee that,” noted Andro Bablidze, 54.

And then things go even worse: after a quarter of a century at the factory, Andro was fired. 

 “I’ve been working in this company for 25 years. I have changed positions a few times while working here, at the end I was working as a loader. Soon enough after they introduced us to a new contract, I was informed that I was fired for reasons that were unfair and ridiculous. They told me that my position was extra and no longer needed. They didn’t even offer me an alternative. Once the government got involved and they made an agreement and returned us to work, I decided to quit. After this strike and what happened—after what I experienced, I didn’t want work there anymore. I got tired and didn’t want to be part of it. I accepted the compensation, which will help me and my family to survive until I find another job.’’

Givi Gogaladze, 65

"They did not warn us at all. They sent me a formal letter informing me that I had been fired. More than 200 people did not sign the agreement, but only 50 were fired illegally. In the letter it said that I was fired because of poor work and tardiness. These reasons are made up and very unfair. I have been working here for 43 years, I was even awarded a prize as a leading worker before the events,” noted Givi Gogaladze, 65, a loader at the factory.

Givi believes that he and 49 other employees were fired due to the 2021 strike.  

"A year ago, we went on strike to demand a salary increase and we won. Now, the employees who were active in the previous strike were fired. On June 21, I was reinstated to my position and I continue to work. The changes in the new agreement aren’t too bad but are also not great, because we now depend on the company’s output. which is very volatile due to the war. We demanded that some management be fired. That has not been done yet but they promised to address it eventually. If they do not fire these people, it will have an impact on the company. I already know that I’m not going to work here much longer in any case, because I am retirement age and can quit whenever I decide I don’t have the energy to work here anymore.’’

Marina Dvalishvili

“I have a fixed salary of 850 lari (approximately $290) and they asked me to sign a document that I would agree to work for half that salary without any hope that it would change in the future.  The director even told me that the company would continue to ‘reorganize’ if we did not sign the contract but I wasn’t planning to give up,” said Marina Dvalishvili, a cleaner at the factory for 10 years.

“The crisis would have a negative impact not only on us, our employees and our families, but also on the entire population of Borjomi. The fact that the factory worked so well is due to our uninterrupted work. The company also finances the municipality well, which is reflected in affordable transport and medical care. This is the only municipality with such conditions for the residents. It was impossible for me to survive on half my salary, considering how much work I do at the company.”

Marina said she decided to accept the new contract as now the workers have a guarantee that their old salaries will resume eventually. 

“For now, we have to work for an hourly salary and because of the war I can’t predict what kind of income we will have this year,” she said. “The agreement we signed is temporary; we will start working on a new agreement in November. If the company does not offer better terms and it is not acceptable to us, we have to go back to the contract reached after the 2021 strike—a fixed salary. As of today, we are happy with what we have agreed on, though it does not end there. We will continue to work.”

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