Living on the Edge: Georgia’s Precarious Workers

Author: Thoma Sukhashvili

Edition: Identity

Sofio Koridze faces an occupational identity dilemma. The 30-year-old Tbilisi resident graduated with a degree in journalism, but a lack of job opportunities pushed her into the customer-service sector. For four years, she has been enduring long shifts, low wages, and a deep sense of confusion about the disconnect between what she aimed to be and what life pressured her to become.

She is one of thousands of  so-called “precariats” crowding Georgia’s job market.

In his book “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,”British economist Guy Standing defines “precariat” as a working class formed by people with unstable and low-income jobs. In his view, the precariat lacks an “occupational identity” -- the degree to which a person’s self image is attached to his or her career. In Georgia, this is particularly true of the customer-service sector.

Jobs in the sector get among the most damnable ratings in the country on, a website that allows employees to rate anonymously the companies they work for.Employees complain about slavery, nepotism, unbearable conditions, undervalued work; some go as far as to compare their workplaces to gulags.

Certainly, Koridze’s four years of work have not been pleasant. On her first job, she worked 12-hour night shifts in the call center of a private security company, from 9pm until 9am. Struggling to make ends meet, she added several hours for extra cash. It meant a killer schedule of up to 16 hours straight every other day.

“I have changed jobs many times, but I encountered the same problem everywhere. I don’t write some of the jobs in my resume as I don’t want employers to think that I am unreliable.”

Employees like Koridze were contracted as consultants on salaries ranging around 400 laris (163 $) per month, according to the TK. That compares with an official average monthly wage of 940 laris ($384).

Sopio Koridze, 30, has a degree in journalism, but has been working in customer service for the last four years. She has had various jobs, earning a maximum of 340 laris ($138) a month on long shifts.
“Consultant wanted on Rustaveli [Avenue],” reads a sign in a subway station on the outskirts of Tbilisi.
As elsewhere in the world, Georgian retail workers are hired as temporary workers with flexible schedules and a potentially wide range of tasks. Overtime is often unpaid, interviewees say.

Georgia has long struggled to revive its economy after the chaos that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse; a period that in the 1990s saw inflation top 15,000 percent and wages plummet by 90 percent, dragging thousands of families into desperate poverty. After the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia adopted neo-liberal economic policies and slashed red-tape in a bid to attract international investment. The result was a dramatic increase in GDP growth, but the fruits of that growth were not widely shared.

Poverty, despite decreasing, still affects one-third of the country’s population of 3.7 million, with 32 percent living on less than $2.50 per day, official data from 2016 states.  The country’s overall official unemployment rate  stands at 14 percent. 

But from an employer’s perspective, the situation is favorable. Misha Kordzakhia, vice-president at the Georgian Employers’ Association, a Tbilisi-based organization uniting hundreds of small, midsize and large businesses, maintains that companies do not want to pay a lot of money in salaries to people working in customer services.

The salaries are in line with the law of supply and demand, he maintains -- since many people apply for customer-service jobs, companies do not have to pay more. The 2013 labor code already defines procedures for overtime pay, contract termination and women’s rights, he adds.

Georgia’s minimum wage is set at a mere 177 laris ($72) per month, according to the statistics office, but that does not worry Kordzakhia.

Businesses, as taxpayers, are not concerned with poverty-stricken people or other social-welfare issues, he maintains. “Business does not aim to provide more jobs, but to gain profit.” 

That has done little to help Levan Chalatashvili, who was forced to drop out of his studies in business administration because of financial constraints. With his family living far from Tbilisi, he tried to support himself while he studied, but that proved impossible.

The 23-year-old’s first job in a hypermarket involved physical activity -- assembling shelves, carrying and arranging products and checking their validity -- and he often had to work overtime.

“They said that the schedule was flexible. And you are under strict camera control -- they check who you talk to, who you smile at. Being sick was not an option. Once, I had a pulmonary inflammation, another time I an ear infection, but I knew that if I didn’t go to work, I would not be paid,” he says.

Levan Chalatashvili, 23, left university due to financial difficulties and has only managed to find jobs in supermarkets. “In four years, I have had to change between five jobs and 10 apartments. Do you know the feeling when you wake up in the morning and you don’t feel tired? I don’t. I got used to sleeping on public transportation.”
“I am collecting money for [my] education.” In Tbilisi’s public spaces, it is not unusual to see young people asking for cash to cover either their studies or rent and often both.
“The customer-service sphere is physically and emotionally demanding. It is so tiring that students are left with no resources to focus on their education,” says 21-year-old restaurant worker Nina Gochitashvili, who has been working in the sector since high school to support her studies.

Supermarkets and retail chains have been under the spotlight for working conditions considered abusive. Former employees at the supermarket chain Nikora recently charged that they were obliged to purchase products that had expired, Liberali reported. The company confirmed the practice.

In early 2017, the Ministry of Labor, Health, and Social Affairs investigated the chain Fresco for exploitation and forced labor involving shifts up to 60 hours a week (compared with the legal maximum of 48), unjustified wage cuts and bullying. The chain was fined 2,000 laris ($818) for installing cameras in the women’s changing room -- a practice the management defended as intended to prevent “theft and physical confrontation.”

In these jobs, women are the most vulnerable, maintains Neno Charkviani, a board member of the Solidarity Network-Worker’s Center, a Tbilisi-based labour union which defends labor rights, specifically in the service sector.

“Women are exploited even more than men and gender stereotypes are the norm. They are often tasked with cleaning, even though hired as cashiers. It is considered a “natural duty” for women. Men working in shops are never obliged to clean,” explains Charkviani. Companies then save money on cleaners by assigning those tasks to women without paying them for that additional work, she claims.

Fear of losing their low-paid jobs means that employees rarely come forward to denounce exploitation. When they do, sometimes little changes happen.

“If something was missing in the shop, they would deduct the cost from our salaries,” explains Koridze, who worked once as a “consultant” in a supermarket for 240 laris ($98) a month. “Once they deducted 100 laris ($40.73) from everyone, 40 percent of our salary. We protested and the management gave it back.”

Mostly, though, employees have no leverage.

“In the Georgian reality, people who are employed in the industrial or in the customer-service sphere do not have a promising future in terms of their careers,” laments Charkviani.  

“Employees in customer service can’t seek support among fellow co-workers and are left alone against management,” comments Neno Charkviani, an activist with the Solidarity Network Workers’ Center, which defends labor rights. “Eventually, they can’t win against the company and they just lose hope. It is a common problem and it has to be resolved collectively.”
The average customer-service sector salary in Georgia is just 400 laris ($163) per month, according to the Solidarity Workers-Network Center. The official average salary is 940 laris ($384), but Misha Kordzakhia, vice-president of the Georgian Employers Association, maintains that “employees in low-management positions don’t have to perform difficult tasks.”
A mannequin in the Georgian Employers’ Association office used mostly for construction-worker-safety trainings. The organization disagrees that businesses should do more to protect customer-service workers’ welfare, but activist Neno Charkviani stresses that “standing for a long period of time, having no time to eat, carrying heavy bags makes and other physical activities can have a long-term health impact.”
In Tbilisi’s bars and restaurants, customer-service fees included in the final bill rarely reach the waiter or waitress unless the customer tips them directly, some restaurant staff say.

Disclaimer: The author of the story Thoma Sukhashvili works in a customer service. 


July, 2018 Identity Edition

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