2022 award recipient

Oil Workers’ Rights Protection Organization

This news release is available online in English, French (français), Spanish (español), Portuguese (português), Azerbaijani (Azərbaycanca), Russian (русский), Arabic (اللغة العربية), Simplified Chinese (简体中文), Traditional Chinese (繁體中文)


Oil Workers’ Rights Protection Organization named 2022 recipient of Human Rights and Business Award

Human Rights and Business Award Foundation

Geneva, 29 November 2022

Today, during the annual United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights, our foundation is naming Oil Workers’ Rights Protection Organization (OWRPO), based in Azerbaijan, as recipient of the 2022 Human Rights and Business Award.  The award, recognizing “outstanding work by human rights defenders addressing the human rights impacts of business”, is accompanied by a $50,000 grant.  The 2022 award was announced at the human rights defenders session of the United Nations Forum, and in a brief video featuring OWRPO’s Founder and Chairperson Mirvari Gahramanli, as well as Phil Bloomer and Ella Skybenko.  The video is available in English, Russian and Azerbaijani.

OWRPO, founded in 1996 by a group of oil workers, addresses the human rights impacts of oil and gas companies in Azerbaijan.  It defends the rights of oil and gas industry workers, and seeks public monitoring of large-scale oil and gas projects.  It also works for transparent and fair spending of oil and gas revenues for the benefit of society, calling for more to be invested in Azerbaijan’s “human capital” (including education and health).

The foundation’s board members (Christopher Avery, Regan Ralph and Valeria Scorza) said today: “We are very pleased to give the 2022 award to OWRPO, a small, highly-respected organization that does exceptional work defending human rights in a country where the oil industry is predominant.” 

The foundation’s Advisory Network member Ella Skybenko (Eastern Europe/Central Asia Researcher & Representative, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre) commented: “The professionalism, dedication, and fearlessness of OWRPO’s team never cease to amaze me. They do a very impressive job of helping oil workers protect their rights and holding accountable oil and gas companies.”

Advisory Network member Ghada Abdel Tawab (Ford Foundation’s Global Senior Program Officer, Future of Workers – International) said: “OWRPO does impressive work in a highly challenging context.  In addition to their work monitoring and documenting violations, their focus on how the government spends oil sector revenue brings in a structural and systemic lens.”

Mirvari Gahramanli, OWRPO Founder and Chairperson

Phil Bloomer, Executive Director of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, remarked: “OWRPO plays such a vital role in Azerbaijan by supporting workers, training them in their rights, challenging disasters at the workplace, and challenging pollution and corruption in the country.  My sincere congratulations to Mirvari and the whole team.”

Mirvari Gahramanli, OWRPO’s Founder & Chairperson, said: “Thank you for the award on behalf of OWRPO, and on behalf of the thousands of people we have defended during our 26 years of activity.  The award will help us expand our work protecting the rights of oil workers and encouraging civil society oversight of the country’s energy sector.”

OWRPO knows the realities of how oil companies in the country operate, partly due to the fact that Mirvari Gahramanli in her earlier career worked as a manager at SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic).  Mirvari had graduated from the Azerbaijan Oil and Chemistry Institute (now called Azerbaijan State Oil and Industry University).”

OWRPO’s work includes:

  • Raising awareness among workers about their rights.
  • Exposing labor rights violations, and calling for redress.
  • Calling attention to dangerous working conditions; seeking justice for workers killed or injured.
  • Spotlighting pollution by oil companies and its impact on health.
  • Providing legal assistance to workers whose rights have been violated (in 2021, assistance to 65 people in 54 separate claims).
  • Calling for law reform.
  • Seeking public monitoring over large-scale oil projects, including projects financed by international financial institutions.
  • Anti-corruption activities.
OWRPO seminar for women workers to discuss labor rights and gender laws

OWRPO operates in a difficult context.  In 2013 Switzerland-based Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders issued an alert about an assault in Azerbaijan on the 17-year-old grandson of OWRPO Chair Mirvari Gahramanli.  The alert said two men came up to the grandson, grabbed his shoulder, and “advised” him to tell his mother and grandmother “how to speak in the press”.  “Allegedly, they threatened to cut his tongue off to silence his mother.  Finally, they beat the boy black and blue on his shoulder and neck.”  The alert concluded: “The Observatory condemns the assault against Mr. Jamal Azizov as well as the alleged threats against Ms. Matanat Azizova [his mother, who was Head of Women’s Crisis Center] and Ms. Mirvari Gahramanly [his grandmother], and fears they are an attempt to silence the two women’s efforts to report on human rights violations.  Recently, Ms. Gahramanly has indeed published several articles and interviews about the violation of women’s rights and sexual harassment within the State Oil Company….”  Mirvari in 2014 was blocked from accessing both her personal and OWRPO’s bank accounts.  In 2014 the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights expressed concern at restrictions on human rights defenders working on business and human rights issues in Azerbaijan.  In December 2018 a coalition of human rights defenders condemned an insulting and slanderous campaign that had been launched in the pro-government media against Mirvari, after OWRPO had criticized state-owned oil company SOCAR for its non-compliance with environmental standards. Amnesty International’s 2021/22 report on Azerbaijan says: “Persecution and harassment of government critics continued… Arbitrary restrictions continued to cripple the work of human rights defenders and NGOs.”

Gender issues: OWRPO noted in a March 2020 report (covering 2019) that the number of women working in state-owned oil company SOCAR had decreased compared to previous years.  Only one of 14 senior executives at SOCAR was a woman; two of 14 at BP Azerbaijan.  OWRPO reported that as of January 1, 2021, only 16% of SOCAR employees were women.  One example of numerous sexual harassment victims that OWRPO has assisted: a woman working as a laundress on an oil platform owned by SOCAR, reportedly was subjected to sexual harassment by the deputy head of that platform.  When the woman complained, she was dismissed from her job; she felt insulted and tried to commit suicide.  OWRPO took up her case with SOCAR; the woman was able to return to her job.

Guneshli platform No. 10 fire (photo: Wikipedia)

Addressing workplace disasters: One example: OWRPO played an important role after the disastrous 2015 fire at SOCAR’s deep sea platform No. 10 in the Guneshli oil field. 30 workers reportedly lost their lives (12 bodies found, 18 bodies not found); many others were injured. When the fire broke out, OWRPO received calls from workers on the platform, and was the first to provide information to the public about the incident, while the company remained relatively silent.  Later OWRPO with the help of a group of experts issued a detailed report, analyzing the disaster, and pointing out how laws were not followed which would have prevented loss of lives.  The report noted cases of injured workers (many with serious burns) who did not receive financial and psychological aid.

One of the oil workers injured in the Guneshli platform fire

Broad range of concerns: OWRPO publishes its detailed reports on its website, in English and Azerbaijani.  Concerns raised by OWRPO over recent years include:

  • “Trade unions play almost no role in the protection of employees’ rights.” There is a lack of independent trade unions in the country.
  • Fear of losing their job prevents employees from using grievance mechanisms.
  • “One of the main causes of discrimination in the extractive industry is nepotism, which is especially observed in recruitment, payment of wages and termination of employment contracts.”
  • “Discrimination against local workers is also observed in some foreign companies involved in oil projects.”
  • The official number of deaths and injuries at work that is reported is less than the actual number; in many cases accidents are concealed.
  • SOCAR workers are forced to join the ruling party (New Azerbaijan Party).
  • “The persecution of employees according to their political viewpoints is also often seen.”
Polluted oil field, Azerbaijan (photo: Bruce Brander / Science Photo Library)

Pollution and public health: OWRPO’s annual report covering 2021 lists oil companies fined for environmental violations in Azerbaijan – including SOCAR, BP Azerbaijan, Bahar Energy (subsidiary of Greenfields Petroleum, a Texas-based firm), Salyan Oil (owned by SOCAR and China National Oil & Gas Exploration and Development), Neftechala (owned by SOCAR, Russneft [Russia] and others); and three firms owned by SOCAR and Union Grand Energy [Singapore]: Surakhani Oil, AzGerneft, Balakhani Operating Company.

A 2018 OWRPO report remarked that “the extractive sector is [the] most polluting sector in the country”, but charges are not brought against companies, rather the companies are just fined.  The report noted that independent experts and Azerbaijan government authorities had found that oil and gas production has a “huge impact” on health due to high levels of land, air and water pollution.  A detailed comparative analysis by an OWRPO expert (“The effects of oil and gas production on the environment and human health”), looking particularly at rates of death, respiratory disease and cardiovascular disease, found that the health of people living in oil-producing regions of Azerbaijan was significantly worse than in other regions of the country.

All nominees for the 2022 award

Following is a list of all the organizations nominated for the 2022 Human Rights and Business Award by members of the foundation’s Advisory Network.  Each of these is doing important work deserving international recognition.

The award alternates annually by region – this year former Soviet Union countries, next year Latin America & Caribbean.

About the foundation

Human Rights and Business Award Foundation is an independent non-profit foundation.  To ensure its independence, the foundation does not accept donations from any government or any company.  The foundation’s Board members and Advisory Network members from across the world are listed on this webpage.  Contact: contact@humanrightsandbusinessaward.org

Oil Workers’ Rights Protection Organization (OWRPO) is the fifth recipient of the annual award.  The previous winners:

2021: AFREWATCH (Democratic Republic of Congo)

2020: Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) (Thailand)

2019: Al-Haq (Palestine)

2018: Justiça nos Trilhos (Brazil)

Memorial for those who lost their lives in the Guneshli platform fire