In November 2022, the Governing Body of the International Labor Organization (ILO)
decided to begin enforcing international labor rights obligations on the Belarusian government. It took the ILO two decades to take this step.
Even though Lukashenko’s propagandists claim that the decision was politically motivated, it is worth recalling that this decision was preceded by a long history.
A regular violator of conventions
The first president of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, was elected in 1994. Mostly the majority of workers voted for him at that time, because he positioned himself as "a man of the people. However, at the very beginning of his presidency, his relations with the workers, who had united into trade unions, did not go well.
Already after a year of his first term in August 1995, a serious strike of public transport workers broke out in the country. Among the strikers were workers of the Minsk metro and Gomel trolleybus drivers. The demands were of an economic nature. The paralyzed capital city really upset the president, so harsh measures were taken to suppress it: shooting in the air, kidnapping strike leaders, and mass layoffs using Russian strikebreakers. A special presidential decree to suspend its activities was issued for the union that had organized the strike. At that time the Belarusian Free Trade Union (SPB), was one of the largest independent trade unions in the country.
This was the reason for the first complaint of workers against the government of Belarus to the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the first case against the government of Belarus, Case No. 1849 which was followed by the second case, No. 1885. This complaint against Lukashenko’s government was filed by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in 1996. The reason was the expulsion of trade unionists of the Polish trade union NSZZ Solidarnosc from the country during their visit to the SPB, as well as the prosecution of the SPB leaders for their participation in a trade union meeting.
Ironically, this then worked for the fledgling authoritarian regime; and a year later, the SPB was restored. However, the union has never fully recovered after this incident. It would seem that this case was a lesson for the country’s leadership, but no.
Before the next presidential election Lukashenko issued Decree #2 of January 26, 1999 “On some measures to regulate activities of political parties, trade unions, and other public associations”, which made registration of trade union organizations much more difficult.
The situation further deteriorated after the presidential election in 2001, in which the main opponent of Lukashenko was Uladzimir Hancharyk - the chair of the largest trade union federation (FPB).
After the election the authorities decided to take over the largest public organization in the republic, which united 4.5 million workers at that time. In order to make the trade union leadership more obedient, they introduced restrictions on non-cash transfers of union membership dues. In fact, Lukashenko paralyzed the financial activities of the FPB. After that he arranged a purge of the federation from its opponents. Leonid Kozik, who used to be a deputy head of the Presidential Administration, was appointed to the position of the chair of the republican trade unions.
By that time, the ILO had received complaints both from trade unions of the FPB - the Belarusian Trade Union of Agricultural Workers, the Trade Union of Automobile and Agricultural Machinery, and the Trade Union of Radio-Electronic Industry Workers; and the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), an alternative trade union center to the FPB. Thus, another ILO case, No. 2090, was filed against the government of Belarus.
After several years of investigation, in July of 2004 the Commission of inquiry of the ILO completed its report “Trade-union rights in Belarus”. The report issued 12 recommendations for the government of the country concerning the adoption of measures aimed at improving the legislation and law-enforcement practice in the sphere of freedom of association and trade union rights. Belarus was to implement them by June 1, 2005.
That didn’t happen; and in 2007 Belarus was punished for non-compliance with the recommendations by being excluded from the Generalized Scheme of preferences, which is expressed in discounts on customs tariffs for exports from developing countries to the EU in return to adherence to labour standards.
For 15 years the Ministry of Labour of Belarus imitated the progress of implementation of the 12 ILO recommendations and the social dialogue in the country, while at the same time the remaining independent trade union organizations were quietly destroyed behind this imitation.
Both Decree No. 2 and Decree No. 29 contributed to this. The latter decree essentially launched a total campaign to convert workers from permanent contracts to short fixed term contracts that could be easily unilaterally not extended by the employer.
Over 95 percent of workers switched to this form of employment, thereby suppressing all worker activity in the workplace. And in fact, it paralyzed the development and full activity of democratic trade unions, which were losing membership numbers and representation in factories.
Going to extremes
The dictatorial regime in Belarus seams to be afraid of the labour movement and what more of its strengthening. The suppression of workers’ rights and violations of the ILO conventions are directly related to the desire to maintain full control over economic power in the country.
The method of slow strangulation of trade unions and their inability to register new structures led to the fact that by 2019 the only numerous democratic trade union organization in the country was the primary organization of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union at JSC Belaruskali, which united more than 4,000 workers. A few years later it was liquidated as well.
All facts of violations of workers’ rights were recorded by the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions and filed to the ILO. The case No. 2090 was enlarged with new cases of violations of Conventions No. 87 and 98. However, the reason to include Belarus into the “short list” was Lukashenko’s decrees # 1 and # 3, devoted to the so called “social parasites” and the decree # 29 “On additional measures to improve labour relations, strengthen labour and executive discipline”. By its actions the authorities additionally violated ILO Conventions No.105 “On the Prohibition of Forced Labor”, No.122 “On General Employment”, and No.95 "On Protection of Wages".
It looked like an open challenge to the international organization, a demonstrative disregard for international and constitutional norms.
This resulted in the inclusion of Belarus in the expanded list of violators of ILO conventions, and later in a kind of top 25 most egregious violators of workers’ rights along with China, Myanmar, Colombia, Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan and other states.
It could seem that it was impossible to fall any lower; but the Belarusian government was unpleasantly surprising. A new round of repression began during the last presidential election and mass peaceful protests in August 2020.
In addition to mass lay offs of trade union activists who participated in the protests, administrative arrests and detentions with beatings were used against them. A turning moment for further escalation was the beginning of Russia’s large-scale military aggression against Ukraine in February 2022.
The leadership of the BKDP openly declared its anti-war stance and demanded the withdrawal of the Russian army from Ukraine and Belarus. In April and May, the KGB conducted mass searches in the offices and apartments of union leaders.
Office equipment, computers, phones and personal belongings were confiscated. Several dozens of leaders and activists of the BNP, SPM, SPB, REP and the leadership of the BKDP were detained. It seemed to be not enough for the authorities, and in several months after the arrests, with the help of the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Supreme Court of Belarus the remaining democratic trade unions in the country were liquidated.
Protest by the ILO and the international labour movement did not lead to the release or a commuted sentence for the trade union activists. There was no response to the ILO Director-General Guy Ryder and his letter sent to Lukashenko urging him to release the six trade unionists detained for participating in peaceful protests.
A few months later, virtually all of the union leaders were convicted and sentenced to criminal terms. Some, like the leadership of the REP trade union, were sentenced to 9 years in prison. The arrests and sentences of Belarusian trade union leaders were, in fact, the key event that prompted the ILO Governing Body to decide to apply Article 33 of the ILO Constitution to Belarus.
What should Belarus expect?
It is worth recalling that the ILO has been developing and setting international labor standards for the past 100 years. States voluntarily ratify the Conventions, which they subsequently undertake to comply with. Back in 1956, the BSSR ratified Conventions No. 87 and No. 98, which guarantee workers the right of association and the conclusion of collective bargaining agreements.
If the obligations undertaken are not fulfilled, the ILO recommends adhering to them. If persuasion leads to nothing, “the Governing Body may recommend to the Conference such action as it considers appropriate to ensure implementation of these recommendations,” the organization’s statute states.
The ILO cannot independently influence violators of international norms, but it can appeal to all members of the organization to talk sense into the country of the violator, for example, by reviewing economic or diplomatic relations with it.
This was done with the government of Myanmar in 2000. Western countries then severed all trade and economic relations with the military regime in that country. For example, U.S. sanctions included a ban on imports of Myanmar products into the country, a ban on investment in Myanmar and a ban on exports of goods and services to Myanmar from the United States.
But trade with Myanmar has not stopped by the rest of the world; neighboring China, Thailand and other states have continued to cooperate with it. Myanmar's foreign trade even increased in absolute numbers, but the sanctions hit some sectors of the economy hard, such as textile industry. Sanctions were also applied to the former Yugoslavia, China, Cambodia, and South Africa. They did not always lead to compliance with ILO requirements, but they clearly did not strengthen the regimes of the countries to which they were applied.
What decision will be made depends on the will and wishes of the member states of the ILO. It depends on many factors, including the nature and gravity of the violations, political and economic interests of member states and other circumstances. Perhaps these decisions can affect the fate of 30 Belarusian trade unionists in detention, and the Belarusian example will be an instruction to other countries.
Author: Philip Stary