Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law protects the right of all workers to form and to join independent unions, except for noncivilian personnel of the armed forces and law enforcement agencies. The law also provides for the right to strike, with the same exceptions, and permits collective bargaining. The law mandates seven days’ notification and mandatory mediation before a strike as well as the agreement of two-thirds of the workforce obtained in a secret vote. The law stipulates that worker rights may not be restricted due to union membership. The list of justifiable grounds for firing a worker, enumerated in the labor code, does not include union activity.
On July 1, amendments to the labor code came into effect that revived the state oversight function of the Health and Labor Inspection Body (HLIB) over the full scope of labor legislation. These changes, as well as amendments to HLIB bylaws, allowed the HLIB to act upon labor law violations based on written complaints. The HLIB is required to provide prior notification to employers when conducting an inspection. To implement its new functions, the HLIB added 60 inspectors to its staff list, bringing the total number of labor inspectors to 92, of whom 50 had been hired by the end of the year.
The government did not effectively protect freedom of association and relevant laws were insufficient, although penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other denials of civil rights. Labor organizations remained weak because of employer resistance, high unemployment, and poor economic conditions. Experts reported that the right to strike, although provided in the constitution, was difficult to realize due to mediation and voting requirements.
On August 20, the government issued new regulations requiring workers either to present a COVID-19 vaccination certificate or to submit the results of a PCR test every 14 days starting from October 1, and every week starting from December 1. The regulations apply to all government workers and a long list of private-sector businesses. Pregnant women and those who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons are exempted. Applicable employers were responsible for collection of employees’ vaccination and test records. The Confederation of Trade Unions of Armenia and Republican Union of Employers of Armenia stated that the cost of biweekly COVID-19 tests, approximately 15,000 drams ($30) per month, was a serious burden for workers. It noted the new regulations were not discussed with the Tripartite Commission, as required by the Tripartite Agreement signed in October 2020. According to other observers, the new regulation was in violation of the labor code, which mandates employers pay for any mandatory work-related medical examinations. On December 10, parliament approved legal amendments that would allow employers to dismiss their employees for failure to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or take a coronavirus test once every seven days. On December 23, the Constitutional Court ruled the formulation in the government decisions stating that the employees must pay for testing was unconstitutional but did not reject the requirement for testing. According to the government, the court’s decision did not create an obligation for the state or the employer to pay for an employee’s COVID-19 test, and unvaccinated workers would continue to have to submit weekly test results.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits and criminalizes all forms of forced and compulsory labor, although it does not define forced labor. The HLIB can detect instances of forced labor and issue fines, but law enforcement agencies are responsible for enforcing forced labor laws. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Prosecutions were not proactive and heavily relied on victim self-identification. In December the first labor-trafficking conviction occurred since 2014. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate to identify forced labor cases. Penalties for labor-trafficking violations were commensurate with those for other serious crimes but were seldom applied.
In December, a 63-year-old woman received a seven-year sentence for labor trafficking (subjecting a minor to forced begging). The sentence was changed to a two-year conditional sentence due to the perpetrator’s serious health problems, her guilty plea, and her cooperation with authorities. Several investigations into additional forced labor cases were underway at year’s end. In one of the most egregious cases, in December 2020 the Investigative Committee reported a case of labor exploitation in Vardenis Neuropsychological Retirement Home. According to the Investigative Committee, a retirement home staffer had exploited a 70-year-old resident with cognitive problems to work as a salesperson in a grocery shop opened by the official at the retirement home. The victim had worked there unpaid five days a week for seven and one-half hours each day without breaks for 16 years. As of the end of the year, the trial continued in Martuni.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. In most cases the minimum age for employment is 16, but children may work from age 14 with permission of a parent or a guardian. The law allows children younger than 14 to work in the entertainment sector. The maximum duration of the workweek is 24 hours for children who are 14 to 16 and 36 hours for children who are 16 to 18. Persons younger than 18 may not work overtime; in harmful, strenuous, or dangerous conditions; at night; or on holidays. Authorities did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Despite HLIB outreach in 2020 to educate supermarket chains regarding child labor regulations, on December 25, Hetq media reported on its investigation of large Yerevan supermarket chains Evrika, Yerevan City, Nor Zov, and SAS, which found stores that did not follow labor code requirements for minors, including minors ages 14 to 17 working in excess of 40 hours per week. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for other serious crimes but did not compel compliance. The absence of unannounced inspections impeded the enforcement of child labor laws, although the HLIB conducted announced inspections related to the protection of the labor rights of minors.
Children younger than 14 worked in a variety of areas, including agriculture, construction, and begging. Children living in rural areas were more vulnerable to forced labor in the agricultural sector. In addition, while the government made an effort to reduce institutionalization of children with disabilities, those living in institutions were more vulnerable to being exploited for labor.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The constitution and the labor code prohibit discrimination based on sex, race, skin color, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion, political opinion, belonging to a national minority, property status, birth, disability, age, or other personal or social circumstances. Other laws and regulations specifically prohibit discrimination in employment and occupation based on gender. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws, and there were no effective legal mechanisms to implement applicable regulations. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred based on gender, age, presence of a disability, sexual orientation, HIV/AIDS status, and religion, although there were no statistics on the scale of such discrimination. Penalties for violations were not commensurate with those for violations of similar laws involving the denial of civil rights.
Women generally did not have the same professional opportunities or wages as men, and employers often relegated them to more menial or lower-paying jobs. While providing for the “legal equality” of all parties in a workplace relationship, the labor code does not explicitly require equal pay for equal work. The International Monetary Fund cited the gender pay gap in the country as being strikingly large. A study by Marjan Petreski and the Statistical Committee of Armenia published by UN Women in 2020 estimated the residual gender pay gap (after adjustments for hours worked and personal and job characteristics) at approximately 10 percent, a number that reflected labor-market discrimination and unobservable factors. The top 1 percent of earners additionally faced a gender pay gap of approximately 19 percent. According to a 2019 Asian Development Bank report, the labor force participation rate was lower for women than men, and women were more likely to work in part-time positions. The report also stated that occupational stereotypes limited women’s choices, and more than 60 percent of women worked in just three sectors: agriculture, education, and health. Women were underrepresented in management positions, and only one in five small or medium-sized enterprises had a female owner.
Many employers reportedly practiced discrimination, most commonly requiring job applicants to be of a specific gender, age, and appearance. Such discrimination appeared to be widespread, but there were no reliable surveys, and authorities did not take any action to mitigate the problem. While there was little awareness of and no comprehensive reporting to indicate the scale of sexual harassment in the workplace, media reports suggested such abuse was common. Vacancy announcements specifying young and attractive women for various jobs were common. Unemployed workers, particularly women, who were older than 40 had little chance of finding jobs appropriate to their education or skills. LGBTQI+ persons, persons with disabilities, and pregnant women also faced employment discrimination. Religious minorities reportedly also faced discrimination in public employment.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: The monthly minimum wage was above the poverty income level. The law provides for a 40-hour workweek, 20 days of mandatory paid annual leave, and compensation for overtime and nighttime work. The law prohibits compulsory overtime in excess of four hours on two consecutive days and limits it to 180 hours in a year.
The HLIB was responsible for the enforcement of wage and work hour laws. The number of labor inspectors was sufficient to enforce compliance, according to International Labor Organization recommendations. The inspectors could initiate sanctions but could not make unannounced inspections. Authorities did not effectively enforce labor standards in either the formal or informal sectors. Penalties for violations of wage and hour laws were commensurate with those for other similar crimes, but still less costly for employers than abiding by the law in some cases. The newness of labor inspections, together with the lack of independent trade unions, continued to leave workers’ rights largely unprotected. Nonetheless, according to the HLIB, the fact that many of the labor-related complaints were resolved by employers without waiting for the HLIB’s ruling attested to some improvement in the area as well as to the HLIB’s existence serving as deterrent against violations. While administrative courts have a mandate to rule on labor-related cases within three months, few employees applied to the courts to reinstate their rights due to legal costs, the complexity of the application process, and distrust of the judiciary. It was unclear if the overloaded courts were able to meet the legally required three-month window for resolving those labor disputes that were submitted to them.
According to an interview with the head of the HLIB broadcast in July, the majority of complaints conveyed to the agency referred to nonpayment of wages and failure to pay wages within the timeframe required under the law.
Many employees of private companies, particularly in the service and retail sectors, were unable to obtain paid leave and were required to work more than eight hours a day without additional compensation.
On June 22, Hetq’s Mediafactory project published an article on the neglected rights of waiters, based on interviews with 30 current and former waiters. The article revealed recurring labor abuses, including long hours without overtime or proper breaks, a system of financial fines for any perceived or actual violation of rules, absence of signed contracts or unavailability of the copy of the contract, no provisions for vacation or paid vacation, and minimal pay or no pay, with income from tips at times unfairly distributed among waiters in an establishment. On December 25, Hetq published the results of a Mediafactory investigation into large Yerevan supermarket chains, in which reporters took jobs at stores run by the Evrika, Yerevan City, Nor Zovk, and SAS chains. They found numerous labor violations, including a lack of written contracts or the inability of workers to read or have a copy of the contract; a lack of required work breaks; fines on workers for perceived faults such as talking to other workers, being late, not wearing makeup, sitting down, or customers’ discovery of expired products; and failure to pay overtime or holiday pay.
The OSCE/ODIHR observation mission to the June parliamentary elections as well as local monitors noted incidents of pressure by political actors and employers on both private-sector and public employees to attend campaign events. Some of the country’s major employers, such as Gazprom Armenia, Electric Networks of Armenia, and Zangezur Copper and Molybdenum Combine, were implicated, as well as a number of municipal governments and subordinate structures. According to several civil society representatives, some employers threatened to dismiss employees for noncompliance. On June 18, the SIS arrested Armen Charchyan, director of the Izmirlian medical center and a candidate from the opposition Armenia Alliance, on charges of obstructing the exercise of a voter’s free will, after a recording was leaked in which Charchyan pushed his employees to participate in the elections with the alleged implication that they should vote for the Armenia Alliance.
Occupational Safety and Health: The government established occupational and health standards by decree, although safety and health conditions remained substandard in numerous sectors. For example, in the agricultural sector heat and the use of pesticides are unaddressed. In 2020 the government reported 24 workplace accidents that had resulted in injuries and three that resulted in deaths. As of October the HLIB reported six deaths in the mining and manufacturing sectors as well as in the electric industry. The Investigative Committee reported that it had launched 18 criminal cases in the construction, energy, mining, and service industries as of October, of which two were dropped due to the lack of a crime, and seven because the perpetrator could not have known his or her actions were dangerous. Given high unemployment in the country, workers generally did not remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety and were unlikely to report violations of their rights.
During the year the HLIB, which has authority over occupational safety and health laws, continued to conduct preplanned inspections for sanitary-epidemiological safety, health care and services, and pharmaceuticals as well as for worker occupational safety and health. The HLIB also conducted inspections in the mining sector, which it assessed as high risk for violations.
The government did not effectively enforce occupational safety and health laws, although penalties were commensurate to those for similar crimes.
In June 2020 the Ombudsperson’s Office released a brief on the nature of labor violation complaints it received in 2019. Reported problems included employers failing to pay what they owed to terminated employees, unjustified dismissals from work, violations of disciplinary action procedures vis-a-vis employees, retaining unjustified amounts of money from the workers’ salaries, and transferring workers to other jobs without their consent. The Ombudsperson’s Office also identified widespread and systemic violations, such as an absence of signed contracts, forcing employers to submit resignation letters, and failure to pay for overtime work. The NGO Helsinki Citizens Assembly Vanadzor, in a report released in June 2020, noted similar problems based on its monitoring of the labor rights situation in 2019.
Informal Sector: Managers of enterprises that were the primary employers in certain poor geographic areas frequently took advantage of the absence of alternative jobs and did not provide adequate pay or address job safety and environmental concerns. A 2019 World Bank report found that approximately 13 percent of the country’s wage employees did not have a written contract and did not have access to any form of benefits related to paid leave, childcare, or sick leave. Informal-sector workers were covered by wage, hour, and occupational safety and health laws; however, they were not covered by inspections. The agricultural orientation of the country’s economy tended to drive informal employment.
According to official statistics, the government’s anticorruption efforts and active efforts by tax authorities led to a notable increase in the number of officially registered employees in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted the problem of informal employment. While the government offered benefits to registered workers or those who had lost their work due to pandemic, unregistered or self-employed workers received much lower benefits. The government admitted there was a problem identifying informal employees and the self-employed due to the absence of a universal income declaration system and ultimately decided to provide assistance to families based on indicators such as the presence of underage children or situations where both parents did not have formal employment before the pandemic. Some of those who lost their livelihoods, however, were not captured by any of the additional assistance programs.