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Belarus is a country without trade unions

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

Mass trials have begun in Belarus against leaders and activists of free and independent trade unions united in the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions. In total, several dozen people will be sentenced within three months.

Belarus is a country without trade unions

It is known that for many detained trade union representatives, investigative proceedings have been completed and dates for court hearings have been set. Most of the suspicions are based on events of two years ago.

In the arsenal of state prosecutors are a number of items: participation in illegal mass events, their organization, illegal strikes, calls for sanctions, extremist activities and treason against the state.

After the defeat of independent trade unions in 2022, there are practically no non-governmental organizations in Belarus. A month ago, the country’s Supreme Court liquidated the last four democratic trade unions. The trade union center that united them, the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), also went into liquidation. For the past twenty years, these unions have been under constant pressure from the administration and the authorities. Their 10,000 members are workers who have been under constant surveillance and pressure from the administration. Although the personalist dictatorship was endured every year, the unions, although in an aggressive environment, continued to carry out their functions. At those companies where their main organizations operated, the most dignified collective bargaining agreements in the country were concluded: Belaruskali, Mozyr Oil Refinery, Naftan, Grodno Azot. During the last twenty years, it was beneficial for the authorities to have a small labor movement that could not influence the political situation within the country, but was formally available to imitate compliance with international labor standards. The Lukashenka regime has followed this strategy since 1995. The protest was forcibly suppressed using methods of kidnapping union leaders, firing strikers and using Russian strikebreakers. From that point on, relations between the BKDP and Lukashenko worsened every year.

The next peak of worsening relations came in the early 2000s, when workers were transferred en masse to a short-term employment system. From then on, the worker decides independently whether or not to renew the contract with the employer.

A couple of years later, in 2002, the post-Soviet trade union center, the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FPB), lost its remnants of independence and was finally subordinated to the Presidential Administration.

From then on, its main task was to control protest moods at the production site and stop them. The short-term employment system and the FPB have become the main shackles at the feet of Belarusian workers, who are now completely under the control of the regime. From that moment began a more open destruction of independent and free trade unions. The facts of non-renewal of labor contracts of trade union activists began to appear, and the administration began to completely ignore the primary organizations of democratic trade unions at companies and not allow them to participate in negotiations on the conclusion of agreements. Local authorities in the regions opposed in every possible way the registration of new primary organizations. All facts of violation of international labor standards were recorded, collected and provided to ILO representatives.

The mission of the International Labor Organization in 2004 formulated twelve requirements for the Belarusian government, which are mandatory for implementation.

The authorities not only failed to correct the violations, but from year to year worsened the legal environment for workers. Despite the fact that it was becoming increasingly difficult to achieve legality in the country, individual trade unions continued their activities, and sometimes quite successfully. At some large industrial companies, where the primary organizations of the Independent Trade Union of Belarus operated, decent collective agreements were concluded. Occasionally, protests were held in defense of workers’ interests. In their turn, lawyers of the Republican Trade Union of Workers of the Belarusian Radio-Electronic Industry successfully defended the interests of their members in court and created an effective legal service. The ILO’s constant attention to the pressure on the unions protected them from total destruction and restrained the Belarusian authorities.

Protest action of the Belarusian independent trade union (BNP)

In addition to temporary contracts and the FPB, companies now have the position of deputy director of Ideological Labor and Human Resources. The functions of this officer are the control of protest and political activity at the enterprise, the selection of ideologically “correct” personnel and the dismissal of ideologically “harmful” personnel.

The ideologues have direct connections not only with the company management, but also with the ideological departments in the district executive committees, the State Security Committee and other law enforcement agencies. They periodically receive joint training and share the results of their activities in special closed seminars.

The main objects of their activity were independent and free trade unions. So, from 2005 to 2020, all primary organizations in the companies of the Free Trade Union of Belarus, the Free Trade Union of Metalworkers, the Belarusian Trade Union of Workers of the Radioelectronic Industry were destroyed. The number of grass-roots organizations of the Independent Trade Union of Belarus has been significantly reduced. The situation finally worsened in the second half of 2019. The government’s disregard for the COVID-19 epidemic, the country’s economic stagnation, and the extreme brutality in the crackdown on protests against election fraud in August 2020, have led to mass protests across Belarus. According to some reports, about 1 million citizens participated in them over the course of two months. Workers of large companies also actively participated in the protests. Mass rallies of workers and demands for repeated elections were held in Minsk, Novopolotsk, Grodno, Zhlobin, Zhodino and other cities. After an ultimatum to the general director of JSC Belaruskali in Soligorsk, workers of the largest mining and chemical enterprise stopped production. Joint committees were formed in all mining departments and political demands were submitted to the administration. These included the resignation of the incumbent president and the holding of new transparent elections. Despite massive labor protests throughout the country, only the Belaruskali workers resorted to decisive measures in the form of a strike. The strike in Soligorsk was the only officially registered strike during the August 2020 protests.

It is worth noting that employees of other companies, which at that time announced strikes, did not stop production. Apart from individual meetings of labor collectives, collection of signatures and words of support for the strikers, the workers did not dare to do more.

The only exception was the Belarusian metallurgical plant in Zhlobin, where a failed attempt to stop the smelter’s work led to the arrest and criminal prosecution of three company employees.

It should be noted that after two days of protest and at Belaruskali itself, the vast majority of workers returned to their jobs. The management pleaded with the workers to stop the protest and promised that no one would be punished for it. Management’s persuasion and the workers’ shyness did their job. In the strike committee, which was based in the office of the Independent Trade Union of Belarus in Soligorsk, a week after the strike began, only a few dozen workers remained on strike. they basically refused to return to their jobs and after a short time were dismissed. The Minsk Regional Court declared the strike at Belaruskali OJSC illegal. The situation was not corrected by Svetlana Tikhonovskaya’s call on October 26, 2020 to the workers of Belarus to start a mass strike. Only a few hundred workers from all regions responded to the call. Even their courage and selflessness did not push the workers to protest en masse, let alone to stop the companies. It was obvious that the mass protest of the workers was stifled. In turn, this situation allowed the ideologues to identify all those dissatisfied with the regime in key industrial companies.

In addition to the existing supervisory structures in production, the position of a representative of the State Security Committee was added, who is not subordinate to the enterprise management, but reports directly to Minsk. One of his duties was to clear the companies of protesters.

Over the past two years, hundreds of activists and members of democratic trade unions have been dismissed with the help of the company administration, law enforcement agencies, the prosecutor’s office and the courts. Their dismissal occurred through non-renewal of short-term contracts, pressure on family members, arrests and detentions of workers. Major changes were made to the country’s labor laws, allowing employees to fire any detained or arrested worker. The democratic unions tried to provide any kind of assistance to the dismissed and their families: legal, material or moral. However, they themselves have become targets of repression. Dozens of union leaders were arrested and fined, sometimes on ridiculous pretexts. And those arrested had their detention periodically extended, as was the leader of the main BNP trade union organization in OAO Naftan, Volha Brytikava. Her arrest was extended five times for fifteen days, implying that it could last indefinitely.

Volha Brytikava

At the beginning of 2022, more than 700 non-governmental organizations and associations were liquidated in Belarus. More than 5,000 criminal and 35,000 administrative prosecutions have been initiated against protesters or those who disagree with the election results. More than 1,330 persons detained in criminal cases were recognized as human rights activists – political prisoners.

Democratic trade unions, although significantly weakened, continued to work. During this period, for example, the BNP lost about half of its union members. The authorities, under ridiculous pretexts, refused to register new trade union organizations and began the process of closing down existing organizations. In the regions, the primary BNP organizations in Bobruisk, Novopolotsk, Mozyr and Grodno were liquidated. Union members were intimidated with dismissals, non-renewal of contacts, detained for administrative terms and activists’ relatives were terrorized. The situation has worsened since February 24, when the current Lukashenko regime provided military and logistical assistance to the Russian army for aggression against Ukraine.

The Executive Committee of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) in its open appeal condemned the attack on Ukraine and shamed the Belarusian authorities for helping Russia as an ally of the aggressor and opening the border with Ukraine. The regime could not forgive the democratic trade unions for this statement.

It should be noted that another factor contributing to the attack on the trade unions was the onset of sanctions imposed by the EU and the US against the Lukashenko regime. The BKDP, despite constant criticism from forces opposed to the authorities, stuck to the position of not applying sanctions against Belarus. Since they will not affect the regime, but the economic situation of the citizens. As soon as the sanctions came into force, this freed the hands of the regime. In April 2022, another wave of mass arrests took place in Belarus. Arrests and searches were carried out in almost all offices of democratic trade unions. In total, two dozen people were detained. Among them were BKDP leader Aliaksandr Yarashuk and his deputy Siarhei Antusevich, employees of the Congress apparatus, the leadership and activists of the SPM, the SPB and the REP trade union.

Aliaksandr Yarashuk, Siarhei Antusevich

A little later, KGB officers detained and arrested for 30 days the chairman of the BNP and the acting chairman of the BKDP, Maksim Pazniakou. Criminal proceedings were initiated against the leaders of the BNP primary organizations in Grodno and Soligorsk. Soon, Aliaksandr Mishuk, leader of the BNP primary organization in Belaruskali OJSC, was arrested and imprisoned in a KGB prison.

Parallel to the searches and arrests, the General Prosecutor’s Office initiated the liquidation of four democratic trade unions and the BKDP trade union center. After brief procedural verifications, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus ruled on all organizations and liquidated all democratic trade unions in the country.

Most likely, the Lukashenko regime is counting on the economic problems associated with sanctions to provoke mass protests of workers. And the absence of trade unions will not allow uniting and coordinating protests, which will significantly weaken them. In addition, the Lukashenko administration will most likely continue to expect trade of arrested activists with the EU countries and the United States, as was the case before. As the events of the second half of 2020 demonstrated, political demands have not become the reason why Belarusian workers are massively willing to pay with their jobs or freedom. This was evident in companies where the level of wages and social protection is low. The political crisis is gradually emerging to other environments: economic and humanitarian. At the moment, Belarusian workers are opting for labor emigration to change their situation. Not everyone is capable of this, and it becomes more difficult. Therefore, Lukashenko’s totalitarian regime will face the prospect of massive and uncontrolled labor protests in the near future. In the wave of which, perhaps, a new stage of the labor movement in Belarus will begin, which may lead to a renaissance of the labor movement.

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