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112th International Labour Conference examines violations of workers’ rights in Belarus

Within the framework of the 112th International Labour Conference in Geneva, the Committee on Application of Standards held a special sitting devoted to the blatant violations of labour rights in Belarus. The participants discussed the worrying evidence of repressions and prosecution of union leaders by the Belarusian Government.

Today, during its Special sitting on Belarus, the ILC Committee on Application of Standards (CAS) received reports concerning violations of the core ILO Conventions by Belarus.

Representatives of the Workers’ Group informed the Committee that in the course of the past three years the current political regime in Belarus had dissolved all independent trade unions and officially banned their activities in the country. Almost 60 union leaders and activists were thrown in jail. One of them is Aliaksandr Yarashuk, an member of the ILO Governing Body, a Vice-President of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and the President of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) who has been sentenced to 4 years in prison.

During the protests of August 2020, thousands of workers, as a sign of protest against the Presidential elections rigged by Lukashenka, left the pro-Governmental Trade Union Federation of Belarus (FPB) and became members of free and democratic unions. Dozens of workplaces saw the creation of new independent workplace unions. This produced a rabid reaction from the management and the national security and law enforcement agencies. None of the newly established union organizations was allowed to complete the registration procedure, while their activists were ruthlessly prosecuted.

Following these developments, the authorities began regarding the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), a permanent target for discriminatory actions of the Lukashenka’s regime for the past 20 years, as a real political threat. The decision to destroy the BKDP was taken by the authorities after the BKDP had openly condemned Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine and demanded that Russian troops should be withdrawn from the territory of Belarus.

The ILO representatives pointed out that all achievements of the past decades in terms of improved relations among the authorities, the employers, and the independent unions in Belarus were buried after 2020.

Repressions unleashed by the Belarusian authorities against workers led to the adoption by the International Labour Conference of an ILO Resolution on Belarus, on June 12, 2023. The Resolution calls for actions under Article 33 of the ILO Constitution to ensure the implementation of the ILO Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations concerning the application of the ILO Convention on freedom of association and protection of the right to organize, 1948 (No. 87), and Convention on the right to organize and bargain collectively, 1949 (No. 98).

Ihar Staravoitau, a representative of the Belarusian Government, denied, in a manner that had become easily recognizable, all the ILO claims, dubbing the whole issue as politicized and provoked by Western States, and claiming that such actions were solely aimed to undermine the economic situation of ordinary people in order to create social tension in the Belarusian society. In the opinion of the Government, everything changed after 2020 and Belarus was not to blame. Staravoitau believes that the structures which had come together under the umbrella of the BKDP were among those who organized the upheaval and disorder.

The Government official noted that the ILO had become an operating pad for Western lobbyists trying to put pressure on Belarus. He maintained that everything that went on in the country was its own internal business. This position was backed by representatives of China, Russia, Egypt, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Laos, Eritrea, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Syria, and Mali. In fact, these are countries where respect of workers’ rights is not a priority.

Their representatives pointed out that Belarus had a fully-fledged trade union center in the person of the Trade Union Federation of Belarus (FPB) which brought its 12 person strong delegation to the ILC headed by the newly elected President Yury Senko. Senko, in his turn, announced the number of the FPB affiliates and workplace union organizations, as well as the number of tariff agreements and CBAs concluded by the FPB affiliates. The rest of his report reiterated the Government’s position presented earlier by Staravoitau.

However, this has failed to convince any of the ILO constituent groups; Workers, Governments, and Employers all remained unimpressed.

Marc Lemans, Head of the Workers’ Group, stressed the ongoing deterioration of the situation and continued persecution of union activists on the country. As an example, he quoted criminal charges brought against Leanid Sudalenka who had already been released and Volha Brytsikava who was under arrest, as well as a harsher custodial regime for Aliaksandr Yarushuk, and listing the materials published by the Salidarnast Association as extremist. And he called the FPB an organization that was dependent on the State.

Paul Noll, Head of the Employers’ Group, also highlighted the lack of progress in the implementation of the ILO demands and the Resolution on Belarus adopted at the last year’s Conference. He called upon the Belarusian authorities to engage in dialogue and cooperation.

Maria Zharylouskaya, Maksim Pazniakou and Lizaveta Merliak

In their interventions, representatives of the EU member-states, the Nordic countries, Switzerland, Canada, the USA, and the UK regretfully acknowledged that the situation had not been changing during the past year and the Belarusian authorities had taken no steps to resolve it. The Canadian representative Sylvain Laberge pointed out that workers deprived of their right to freedom of association were forced to join the FPB, the only available trade union center in the country.

Representatives of Brazil and Columbia stated that their countries had also gone through dictatorship and persecution of trade union activists. Including the current President of Brazil Lula da Silva who went through prisons for his trade union activities. Antonio Vale called for the release of union activists imprisoned for taking part in peaceful protests.

The name of Aliaksandr Yarashuk featured in virtually every intervention along with demands for his release. Just as the names of other imprisoned union activists. Elly Rosita Silaban from Indonesia named every female unionist who is now in jail; while Kirill Buketov of the IUF reminded the participants of the imprisoned union leaders’ families who were unable to receive any humanitarian aid. The demand for the release of Belarusian union activists was echoed by representatives of IndustiALL, BWI, and PSI.

Intervention of Maksim Pazniakau

Maksim Pazniakou
Maksim Pazniakou

The special sitting of the CAS was attended by representatives of independent unions destroyed by the Belarusian authorities. In particular, Maksim Pazniakou, Acting BKDP President, spoke as a representative of the International Trade Union Confederation to point out that all the constructive suggestions and proposals coming from the ILO Governing Body and the Office were rejected by the Government of Belarus.

“Instead of cooperation and attempts to resolve the situation, the Belarusian Government, with the assistance of the FPB it controls, is trying to convince the world that, as a result of the adopted resolution, the ILO has imposed economic sanctions on Belarus which hurt workers and vulnerable groups of population and are a means of political pressure. These statements are only meant to mislead and confuse everyone.”

He pointed out that sanctions against Belarus had been introduced long before the adoption of the Resolution and for altogether different actions of its Government; and he supported all the ILO proposals including the sending of a tripartite mission to the country and the appointment of Director-General’s special representative. We should mention that the CAS sitting was attended by the ILO Director-General Gilbert Houngbo which speaks of the high relevance that the Belarusian agenda has for the whole organization.

Pazniakau also demanded that the names of all unionists should be taken off the lists of extremists and terrorists. He insisted on providing urgent access of healthcare specialists to Aliaksandr Yarashuk, Vasil Berasneu, Vatslau Areshka, and Hennadz Fiadynich.

The demands of the ITUC representative also included the joint use of ILO and UN special procedure mechanisms: reports, calls, urgent appeals, press statements, field visits. As well as the establishment of a working group to coordinate overall activities of the ILO and other UN agencies under Article 33 of the ILO Constitution. There is a need to develop a clear mechanism for gathering information on all measures taken by the ILO member-states within the framework of the resolution on Belarus, including provision of annual reports to be examined at the March meeting of the Governing Body.

At the end of the three hour long session, the Chairman Łukasz Różycki reminded the participants that the decision on the Commission should be ready on June 13. He would not rule out a vote on this issue as the Belarusian party stressed the lack of consensus on it.

The Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) is an indispensible part of the ILO supervisory system as it checks the observance of the ILO standards by the member-states. The CAS is composed of representatives of governments, employers, and workers and is a standing committee of the International Labour Conference.

Representatives of the Workers’ and Employers’ Groups discuss the situation and make up a list of countries that have serious violations of the ILO Conventions they have ratified. Governments are to respond and provide information on cases under review. These cases are discussed at the plenary session of the Conference.

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