In Georgia, workers challenge a Russian oligarch

Mikhail Fridman is one of the wealthiest men in Russia and a close associate of Vladimir Putin. He was included in the earliest lists of individuals sanctioned by the West for his complicity in the criminal invasion of Ukraine.

Among his many investments is a Georgian mineral water company known as ‘Borjomi’ – which is the spa town where the local water has been bottled for more than a century. The sulphorous taste of the water is not to everyone’s liking, but for decades the company has profited from the perception that Borjomi water has certain healing properties.

After the collapse of Soviet rule, the company was privatised and nearly fell into ruin. Nine years ago, Fridman, whose properties include a home in London valued at £70 million, bought the bottling plants. Last year, following an industrial dispute, the company made a number of concessions to its 800 workers, including accepting the idea of a collective bargaining agreement to replace individual contracts.

But in the last few months, the company has changed its mind. No collective bargaining agreement. No negotiations with the union. And a series of vicious attacks on the workers including a 50% pay cut and the sacking of 49 workers who were identified as union activists and leaders of last year’s strike. They were told in a form letter that their jobs were cut due to ‘restructuring’ – which is demonstrably untrue. They were being punished for standing up for their rights.

The pay cut is especially mean, as the average wage for workers in the factory was just £245 a month. And there have now been threats that the workers’ wages from the last month will not be paid at all. Fridman claims that he cannot access any of his bank accounts which have been frozen.

I visited the Borjomi workers last week in the company of two Tbilisi-based union leaders, Giorgi Diasamidze who heads up the food workers union, and his colleague Lika Mebagishivi. This was the day that a government-appointed mediator arrived on the scene. I was allowed to sit in on the session where workers made their case. Prior to that, I had the chance to talk with Koba Gogoladze and Andro Bablidze, who were sacked after decades of work in the factory. From them I learned details about their lives and their struggle.

The workers want several of most notorious managers to be sacked. They want pay increases, not pay cuts. They want a collective bargaining agreement. And they want the Georgian government to take control of Fridman’s share of the business. As they put it to me, Borjomi water belongs to the people of Borjomi – not to this oligarch.

The Borjomi management has now temporarily shut down the factory. I was able to see the darkened factory floor. Management blames the impact of sanctions on their exports. But the workers told me that prior to the shutdown, the factory produced an enormous number of bottles — and these have been stockpiled in case of a strike.

With mediation now underway, the workers have to wait 21 days before they are allowed to strike or even protest outside the locked factory gates. But at the end of this month, if mediation fails, a strike seems inevitable. I suggested to Diasamidze that an international campaign of support could help – and we’re ready to do our part.

Justice for the Borjomi workers is long overdue.

This article appeared in Solidarity.