The oil fields of western Kazakhstan, where the 2011 strike wave erupted, are the most significant source of the Kazakh elite’s wealth, and an important source of supplies for the international oil market. Kazakhstan is the second-largest oil producer after Russia among former Soviet countries: its output is nearly twice that of Azerbaijan’s, and not much less than Norway’s. The state oil company Kazmunaigaz operates the largest oilfield, Tengiz, together with American and Russian companies (Chevron, ExxonMobil and Lukoil). The huge Kashagan field, offshore in the North Caspian sea, is being developed jointly by Kazmunaingaz and big European and American companies. Chinese oil corporations play a significant part in onshore projects, and their influence has grown since an oil pipeline to China was completed in 2006.
In May 2011, thousands of workers from Kazakhstan's oil and gas sector started three separate labor strikes at companies operating in the petroleum sector in the Western part of Kazakhstan.
They were asking for recognition of new unions and other issues. The strikes were directed against the three big government-owned companies operating in the area - Ersai Caspian Contractor LLC, KarazhanbasMunai JSC and OzenMunaiGas. Strikers were mainly demanding for higher wages. The companies declined to examine the workers' demands in mediation procedures or through other processes. Local courts even declared all three strikes illegal because of the workers' alleged failure to comply with national legislation defining the requirements to conduct legal strikes (e.g. Labor code provisions).
Throughout the months of the strikes, altogether more than 2,000 workers were fired. At the same time in Zhanaozen, next to the strikes, around two dozen of UzenMunaiGas' workers also started individual hunger strikes demanding for higher pay. The company refused those claims as “unfounded”.
Later that year, UzenMunaiGas brought the strike to an end on 16 and 17 December 2011, when clashes broke out between striking workers and police on the central square of Zhanaozen. Shops were looted and several buildings were set on fire. When the police opened fire, there were at least 12 confirmed deaths, whereas dozens of other were wounded. The state of emergency was declared in the city by President Nursultan Nazarbaev and an investigation ordered.
During the months following the violence outbreak, oil workers and other supporters that allegedly participated in the unrest were persecuted and targeted through criminal charges by governmental forces. In total, by March 2012, 37 oil workers had been tried for charges of organizing or participating in the protests. In June 2012, 34 of the defendants were convicted, of whom 13 were sentenced to prison terms.