The 111th International Labour Conference (ILC) began in Geneva on June 5, with delegates from around the world discussing pressing issues related to the world of work. The meeting could be a milestone in the ILO's history, as for the first time in its century-long history, delegates are faced with the urgent need to take action on Article 33 of the Constitution, which concerns the Republic of Belarus, where workers' rights to freedom of association are systematically violated. This article, which is essentially disciplinary in nature, is intended to influence violators and protect workers' interests.
If the conference adopts the resolution on Belarus, the range of "impacts" on the Lukashenko regime could be diverse. Countries may reconsider all types of relations with Belarus, including economic or diplomatic relations.
A unique situation for ILO
The application of Article 33 of the ILO Constitution is an extreme measure for this organisation, applied only in cases of egregious violations of workers' rights. In the history of this organisation, it has been applied only once, to the military regime in Myanmar for its use of forced labour. This is the first time that an attempt has been made to apply Article 33 of the ILO Constitution in the context of "Trade Union" Conventions Nos. 87 and 98.
In the international arena, Belarus is considered the worst place in the world for the trade union movement. For 20 years, Belarus has violated the two fundamental ILO Conventions 87 and 98, which guarantee workers the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Belarus ratified these conventions back in 1956 and pledged to uphold them.
The result of Lukashenko's rule and his system has been the dismantling of four democratic trade unions (BNP, SPB, SPM and REP) and the Association of Trade Unions BKDP, and the arrest of their leaders in 2022. More than 40 trade union leaders and activists are currently in prison. Many of them are classified as extremists or terrorists. This is done in order to curtail their rights and keep them under constant surveillance, even if they are released.
The banned Belarusian unions are members of international trade union organizations that unite hundreds of millions of workers around the world. Therefore, the Lukashenko regime could not hide this crime. The trade union federations have raised the issue with the ILO in order to have an immediate impact on the situation in Belarus.
For their part, the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FPB) together with the Minister of labour Iryna Kastsevich tried to solve the problem by gaining the support of their allies-Russia, China, and Cuba. After failing miserably at the 347th session of the ILO Governing Body, FPB Chairman Mikhail Orda resorted to a mass mailing of letters to members of ILC delegations.
In these letters he told about the best system in the world - the Belarusian system of relations between workers and the government. The decision to apply Article 33, he said, was a political pressure on Belarus, and the arrested trade union leaders were for him ordinary criminals who admitted their guilt in court.
All these arguments, according to Orda, should somehow sober up the International Labour Conference, which in the near future will have to vote on whether or not to apply Article 33 of the ILO Constitution. It is known that the Belarusian delegation, composed of officials, in its precarious position, is trying to at least relax the wording in the ILC resolution on Belarus.
Of course, we would like the delegates to hear the opinion of the Belarusian workers themselves, who are now in the country. Only their mouths are firmly closed, and any opinion that does not agree with state propaganda is punishable by a heavy fine, arrest, beatings, and remorse on video with elements of humiliation. Thousands of workers who left Belarus can describe this unpleasant experience in detail.
Some of them are present at the conference. For example, the acting chairman of the BKDP, Maksim Pazniakou, and the leader of Rabochy Rukh, Yury Ravavoi, have arrived in Geneva and represent a different position than the pro-government delegation on what is happening in the country. This information was presented to the majority of ILO member state delegates.
What happens when the delegates vote for the resolution?
Then the governments or parliamentarians of the ILO member countries will be obliged to influence the Belarusian regime to force it to comply with the ILO recommendations.
Practice shows that the most effective measure in such situations is economic influence. ILO member countries can impose economic sanctions on Belarus to put pressure on the government. Such sanctions may include a ban on imports/exports of certain goods, restrictions on financial transactions, or severance of all economic ties.
Personal sanctions may be imposed on officials who have been involved in violating workers' rights: Administrations of some enterprises, local authorities, special services, representatives of ministries, employees of courts and prosecutor's offices of Belarus, and other bodies.
It is possible to use diplomatic channels to communicate one's concerns and demands to the Belarusian government. This may include demarches, statements or protest notes.
International organizations, including the ILO, can also initiate investigations into violations of workers' rights in Belarus and make public information about violations. To lead to international condemnation and put pressure on the government of Belarus.
It is worth noting that each country will decide on the possible actions it will take in this situation. And the process itself may take up to a year, until the next conference.
Will the situation of workers' rights in Belarus improve?
The most important question in this situation is what will happen with the adoption of the resolution on Belarus If we imagine that most countries will apply all these measures, will the regime be forced to comply with the ILO requirements?
Of course, additional economic pressure on Belarus, on top of the already existing pressure, would make life difficult for the usurper Lukashenko and his entourage. However, we should not forget that this will also affect the economic situation of workers, among whom are many former members of democratic trade unions destroyed by the authorities.
For a rational mind it is clear that the reason for these actions is the mindless domestic policy of the authorities. But we should not forget that they have in their hands a propaganda machine that will begin to discredit the idea of independent trade unions and their leaders, who are in prison and some are still free.
It is unlikely that the regime will release all union leaders and activists from prison after pressure from the international community, showing its weakness before the power structures it uses to hold onto power.
Moreover, we can hardly believe that the regime will resume the activity of the dissolved democratic unions and create the conditions for their unhindered and legitimate activity.
So there is not much to say about the positive impact of these measures, at least in the short term. However, the effect of this decision is likely to be long-term and probably applies not only to Lukashenko's regime. But also for whoever comes to power after him.
If we look at the specter of political forces in Belarusian politics, it is full of representatives with neoliberal views on the future of Belarus. We know very well the example of Georgia after the Rose Revolution. Therefore, the adoption of Article 33 will give hope to Belarusian workers to get the right to freely join their unions and strike in the future. This will enable them to actively fight for decent wages and safe working conditions.
The adoption of this resolution is also significant for the International Labour Organisation itself. This is because the number of countries violating workers' rights and the subsequent resolutions of the ILO, which are in reality only symbolic, do not contribute to strengthening the position of the weakest group – the workers. Therefore, there is a faint hope that the example with the application of Article 33 to the Lukashenko regime will become an edification for other Convention violators – Colombia, Egypt, the Philippines, Myanmar, Turkey, Bangladesh and other countries.
This situation seems to be a unique moment in the history of the ILO, when the organisation finally has the opportunity not only to make recommendations to governments, but also to have a real impact on the situation of international labour rights.
Author: Philip Stary