A Georgian Spring in Borjomi

The workers at the plant that bottles Georgia's famous mineral water are out on strike against a fire and rehire case – with resonances well beyond the Caucasus.

An aerial view of Borjomi, Georgia. (Audrius Venclova / Getty Images)

The Borjomi Gorge is a lush, forested canyon that cuts a picturesque swathe along the path of the Kura River through the Lower Caucasus Mountains in southern Georgia. Nestled in this deep green valley, 160 kilometres upstream from the capital Tbilisi, is the small town of Borjomi, famous across Eastern Europe and beyond for over a century thanks to its natural mineral water, which has long been claimed to have healing properties.

Borjomi first developed into a spa town during the nineteenth century, while Georgia was part of the Russian Empire. Attracted by the warm climate and supposed health-giving properties of the local water, wealthy Muscovites, including the Romanovs themselves, built grand summer residences in the area. After Georgia became part of the Soviet Union following the Red Army invasion of 1921, these lavish mansions were turned into sanitoria, and the Romanov palace at Likani was later used as Stalin’s summer residence.

The Stalinist regime commodified Borjomi’s mineral water and exported it throughout the Eastern Bloc, where it became a staple product and a national symbol of Georgia. Borjomi water is still Georgia’s number one export, and it remains a popular brand across Eastern Europe to this day, particularly in Russia.

Following Georgia’s post-Soviet independence in 1991, the company, along with most other public goods and assets, was privatised, and nowadays is known as IDS Borjomi Georgia (a subsidiary of IDS Borjomi International, registered in the Caribbean tax haven of Curaçao). The company’s two bottling plants in Borjomi have been the main source of employment in this small rural community for generations.

For the last decade, IDS Borjomi’s majority shareholder has been the Alfa Group, a Russian conglomerate headed up by Mikhail Fridman. London-based billionaire Fridman is one of Russia’s richest and most influential businessmen, and his close ties to the Putin regime meant he was one of the first oligarchs to be sanctioned by the West following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

Under Fridman’s control, employees at IDS Borjomi’s two bottling plants have suffered a series of attacks on their labour rights. In May 2021 the workers, represented by the newly-formed Georgian Agrarian Workers’ Union (known in English as Labor), launched a nine-day strike to improve pay and socio-economic status of employees, which achieved concrete results: management changed, a collective bargaining agreement was accepted by the company, and salaries were increased by 30-40 percent, and in some cases by 100 percent.

However, IDS Borjomi’s tone changed significantly after the invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions on Fridman. On 29 April, the company announced it was suspending production due to ‘difficult circumstances’, claiming restricted access to its bank accounts. Workers were shut out of the factories and presented with an ultimatum—sign up to new contracts with inferior conditions and pay cuts of as much as 50 percent (in a workplace where the average wage is the equivalent of £250 a month), or lose their jobs.

50 workers were ultimately sacked after refusing to sign up to these terms, including the local union chairman and organisers of last year’s successful strike. The promised collective bargaining agreement was scrapped, and workers’ wages for April went unpaid. In a standard letter to employees, IDS Borjomi blamed ‘restructuring’ for the loss of these jobs, but the workers don’t believe it’s a coincidence that their sacked colleagues were among the most active members of the union.

According to Labor’s national chairman, Giorgi Diasamidze, IDS Borjomi ‘is trying to dismantle and discredit the trade unions’, and has been withholding membership fees due to the union for the last four months in an effort to deplete their strike fund. Diasamidze believes the company ‘planned the restriction of employees’ rights in advance and operated the factory in a busy mode for the last three months, created the largest stocks and is now trying to show the public that the factory is no longer functioning; however stocks are full and Borjomi water is sold freely’.

After a legally-mandated 28-day mediation period ended in stalemate, 400 Borjomi workers began an indefinite strike on 31 May, demanding the reinstatement of their 50 illegally sacked colleagues; permanent contracts and a 25 percent salary increase for all employees, negotiated by a collective bargaining agreement; and the dismissal and prosecution of senior members of staff who have engaged in intimidation and blackmail against workers.

Other companies operating in Georgia, including multinationals such as Coca-Cola, are keeping a close eye on the progress of this strike, and waiting to see whether or not IDS Borjomi and the Georgian government will ensure these workers’ rights are protected. If they are not, these companies could see it as a green light to introduce their own fire and rehire policies for Georgian workers, or to launch similar attacks on trade union rights.

The Georgian union movement is relatively young and small, membership of independent ‘Western-style’ trade unions only having been legalised in the early 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union. The short history of the movement in this small but geopolitically important country has been somewhat chequered; although almost 45 percent of Georgian workers are members of a union, most unions have generally shied away from any meaningful action on behalf of their members. Many Georgians still remember the Soviet unions that operated more as holiday clubs than organisations fighting for workers’ rights; trade unions have consistently figured among the least-trusted institutions in Georgian public life, achieving only an 18 percent approval rating in one 2019 poll.

However, the Borjomi strikers and the Labor union have attracted a huge amount of sympathy and support from the public since their story broke in local media in April. Many Georgians view this as a battle between local workers and the forces of Putin’s oligarchy, against the backdrop of the war on Ukraine and in a country that has had 20 percent of its own territory occupied by Russia since 2008. Adding insult to injury, union chairman Diasamidze says IDS Borjomi have attempted to bring in Russian workers to break the strike, promising them wages several times higher than the existing employees: ‘according to our information, they entered from Russia through the occupied Tskhinvali territory [also known as South Ossetia], which is a violation of the law.’

Since Fridman was sanctioned, the Georgian government has been preparing to take over his 60 percent stake in IDS Borjomi, but they have refrained from releasing any concrete details or acknowledging the company’s illegal attacks on its workers. After a week of continuous protests, during which the strikers marched on Borjomi’s local government building and appealed repeatedly to the national government for help, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili finally made a statement on Monday 6 June. He claimed that negotiations for the government to take over Fridman’s shares were ‘practically completed’, and that ‘this will solve this problem’. Gharibashvili also said ‘I want to tell everyone—no citizen’s rights will be violated and we will treat everyone fairly. Everything will be resolved properly.’

On the same day, the government dispatched a mediation team from Tbilisi (including a labour inspector from the Ministry of Health) to meet with workers and management at the factories. However, employees left the meeting in protest after the mediators refused to immediately reinstate their 50 sacked colleagues.

On Thursday 9 June, Public Defender Nino Lomjaria arrived in town. After listening to strikers’ stories on the picket line, she released a statement pointing out that ’employment in this company is the only source of income for them, and without a salary these people remain completely penniless. In addition, many of them are at risk of becoming homeless due to non-payment of bank loans. The dispute […] should definitely be a subject of discussion by the state. The state must find the best solution through mediation and we will be actively involved in this process.’

But the intervention of Georgia’s Public Defender, although welcome, doesn’t necessarily mean the government themselves will be easily influenced by her appeals. Lomjaria, whose office is independent of government, is considered something of a thorn in the side of the incumbent Georgian Dream administration, and has been lambasted as a ‘political activist’ by ruling party MPs for past comments that were mildly critical of the government. It still remains to be seen how successful this new mediation process will be in achieving justice for the Borjomi workers.

After more than a year of broken promises, the workers themselves are sceptical. ‘Gharibashvili’s statement should have consequences,’ Diasamidze told me. ‘These people have been deceived so many times that until they feel the consequences for themselves and an agreement is signed, no-one else will believe [the government] anymore.’

Andro Bablidze, one of the workers who was sacked after 20 years’ service in the factory, goes even further. ‘No-one should believe there is democracy in Georgia and freedom of speech in my country. I feel vulnerable. As for the mediation, this is all a lie, they cannot solve anything.’ Bablidze, like most of the workers in the two factories, is supporting a family on a single wage. IDS Borjomi’s actions have already wreaked economic misery on the community: ‘Like all the unemployed,’ he says, ‘my family was also left without a salary and without income. I can no longer pay bank debts, utility bills… so I faced problems.’

Marina Dvalashvili, who has worked in a warehouse at the factory for ten years, was not one of the sacked workers, but she says she has not received her wages for two months, and ‘I’ve found myself in a very bad situation… I’ve taken a very big loss. I have obligations to the bank, I live on a large rent and I’m supporting a 13-year-old child alone.’ Georgia has not been spared from the cost of living crisis currently engulfing the world, but these low-paid rural workers have very little safety net to fall back on.

Gharibashvili’s government is currently awaiting the result of its European Union membership application, fast-tracked in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war along with those of Ukraine and Moldova. A final decision is expected from member states in the next few days, but the European Commission’s opinion, published on 17 June, could prove to be a setback; while it recommends that Moldova and Ukraine be granted candidate status immediately, it stops short of advocating the same for Georgia, prescribing a number of political reforms before it can be admitted to the bloc. 80 percent of Georgians support their country joining the EU, but over the last few years the Georgian Dream government has provoked alarm from civil society groups thanks to a series of political and electoral scandals, and the government’s enabling of a high-profile local far-right movement with alleged links to the Kremlin, which has committed violence against journalists and the LGBT+ community.

Marina Dvalashvili points out that ‘Borjomi [water] is a mineral of nature, and nature has blessed us Borjomi people. In a production worth so many billions, why should we have a wage problem for the people employed there? Each of us who works there knows how to do our jobs blindfolded, and how to produce this expensive brand.’ The people of Borjomi are proud of their world-famous water, and the efforts of generations of locals in making it Georgia’s most valuable export. They feel that the water belongs to them, and that the Georgian government should recognise their huge contribution to the nation’s economy.

The Borjomi strikers and their union know that the result of their fight could have repercussions across Georgian society, and for the future of the trade union movement there. ‘We’ve already had the greatest impact,’ says Diasamidze. ‘We won [our strike] last year and it was an example for many. Even though we have no other way to win, we fight to the end. We realise that we may be defeated, but we are ready for that too.’ But it seems imperative for the very future of Georgia and its workers that they are not.