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A protest rally in Borjomi on June 16

‘Borjomi is for Borjomians, not for Russian oligarchs!’ When the Russian owner of a Georgian bottling plant came under sanctions, workers stopped getting paid. Now they're fighting back.

Source: Meduza
A protest rally in Borjomi on June 16
A protest rally in Borjomi on June 16
Diana Shanava

In late April, the Georgian company IDS Borjomi, which sells mineral water under the brand name Borjomi, announced it was temporarily suspending operations at both of its bottling plants in Georgia due to financial difficulties resulting from the war in Ukraine. Oligarch Mikhail Fridman, owner of the Alfa Group, which owns a majority stake in the company, had come under sanctions. Now Alfa Group plans to donate its shares to Georgia — but this hasn’t helped the plants’ employees, who haven’t been paid in two months. Meduza takes a closer look at the town of Borjomi, where protests are ongoing.

About 60 employees of the Borjomi factory are sitting under a homemade canvas tent, where they’ve been since dawn. For over two weeks now, they’ve been protesting outside of the plant’s gates in the city named after the mineral watch company itself. Across from the protesters sit about fifty police officers who are prepared to arrest them if they decide to cross the street, though the officers do look fairly peaceful; they’ve left their weapons in their vehicles, and some of them aren’t even wearing their body armor.

“Borjomi is for Borjomians, not for Russian oligarchs!” reads a sign someone made by hand. Nearby, on a bus stop, there’s a banner labeled “Blacklist,” along with the names of 20 employees who have publicly opposed the protests and tried to dissuade their colleagues from participating. Some of the names are labeled “Judas.”

What happened to the Borjomi bottling plant?

The Borjomi employees’ protest began soon after April 29, when IDS Borjomi Georgia, the company that owns the local bottling plants, announced it was temporarily suspending production at two plants in Borjomi due to the war in Ukraine. Since 2013, the majority stake of IDS Borjomi International (which owns Borjomi Georgia) has been owned by Alfa Group, whose founder — Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman — became a target of Western sanctions after the start of the war.

According to a statement from the company, the sanctions effectively made the plant’s operations impossible — largely because the company lost access to its bank accounts. Plant employees stopped being paid and were offered new contracts — under which they would be paid only half of their previous salaries. The majority of employees told the company’s leadership that they would agree under the condition that their old salaries be restored as soon as the plant resumes normal operations. The company refused, and after a protest on May 5, 49 employees were fired. Most of them were forklift or delivery drivers.

Andro Biblidze is one of the 49 workers who got fired that day. He worked at the plant for over 25 years, transporting materials between departments on a forklift. Biblidze told Meduza that his issues with the company’s leadership began in May 2021, but the problem was initially resolved promptly:

My manager had promised me 1200 lari [about $400; the average monthly salary in Georgia at that time was 1,191 lari ($383)] for 24 days of work. But for some reason, it always ended up being less. People began striking for better pay. After that, the workers met with the plant’s management. They promised me 1,500 lari [about $500] for 24 days, and everyone was satisfied with the conditions. Everyone signed a new contract and returned to work.

After the start of the war in Ukraine, according to Andro, the plant’s leadership brought the employees new contracts. Under the new conditions, if production stopped, the employees would receive half of their salary. If the plant stayed open, the workers would be paid on an hourly basis.

In this case, we would be better off with hourly wages than with half of our salary. But production was suspended the entire time [and we didn’t get paid at all]. Since April, they haven’t even paid us the 50 percent they promised us if the plant was closed.

According to Andro, all of the workers who refused to sign the new contract were fired. Most of them were employees who had signed temporary contracts that lasted from three to six months. Workers with permanent contracts weren’t fired.

Back to the picket line

On May 19, several weeks after the plants shut down, Alfa Group released a statement saying that it planned to donate a portion of its stake in Borjomi to the Georgian government. As a result, Mikhail Fridman would no longer own the majority stake, which would allow the plant to access its accounts and resume operations. According to Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, the donated share is worth $100 million.

A week later, IDS Borjomi Georgia employees reached an agreement with the company’s leadership. According to trade union representative Georgy Diasamidze, who helped organize the protests at Borjomi, the company promised to increase the employees’ salaries and to maintain their existing benefits packages. The leadership emphasized that there wouldn’t be any consequences for the workers who had gone on strike. Driver Andro Biblidze recounted the conversation:

After Prime Minister Garibashvili came out [with his statement] and said it was good news for Borjomi workers, I got a message from our plant's management. They promised not hourly wages but fixed wages, which, according to the contract, would be half the amount I’d been getting before April. That’s what we agreed on. We understood that there was a war, a crisis. But even after that, no payments came.

On May 31, the workers started striking again. Almost 800 of them set up tents outside of the plant and started holding protests, unhappy with the new conditions the company's leadership was offering them. They promised they were in it for the long haul.

Borjomi workers protesting. June 16
Diana Shanava
Diana Shanava
Diana Shanava

The workers, who hadn’t been paid for April and May, demanded “the immediate reinstatement” of their 49 fired coworkers' employment, the restoration of their previous contracts, a transition from temporary to permanent contracts, and “a collective agreement to protect the rights of factory workers.”

Georgy Diasamidze emphasized that the workers will continue protests until the plant’s managers meet their demands:

For many Borjomi residents, working in the plant is the only possible income source. 4,500 of the 10,500 residents of Borjomi work in the plant. There are entire families that work here. Given that they haven’t been paid for two months now, it’s not clear how they’re supposed to live or support their children.

Refusing to compromise

IDS Borjomi Georgia spokesperson Naniko Kuprashvili did not respond to Meduza’s question about why the plant workers haven’t been paid their salaries. He said that the company won’t comment on the conflict while the negotiations are ongoing.

On June 9, Georgian Ombudsman Nino Lomdjaria visited the protesters in Borjomi. Lomdjaria said she was aware of the pressure and intimidation being used against employees; she reported later that the workers said the company’s management had threatened to fire them for taking part in the protests, and had promised to pay only workers who didn’t participate. Lomdjaria vowed to start an investigation based on the allegations.

Several days later, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced that the Georgian government had completed negotiations with Mikhail Fridman for the donated stake in the company. All of the problems at the plant, he promised, would soon be resolved.

According to union representative Georgy Diasamidze, after Garibashvili’s statement, the protesters had some hope that their problems would indeed be resolved soon, but several days later, nothing had changed. So on June 16, they decided to block the road in front of the city administration building. That day, however, representatives from the Health Ministry got in touch with the workers and invited them to a closed meeting.

Diasamidze said that the protesters were offered 10,000 lari (about $3,400) each in compensation, but they refused, as the offer fell short of their list of demands. Now, all of the plant’s workers, with the exception of the 400 administrative employees, have joined the protest. “We’re continuing to protest and continuing to fight for our rights,” said Diasamidze.

Story by Diana Shanava

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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