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Trade Unionists in Belarus: Imprisoned, but Not Forgotten

Mariya Taradzetskaya, a courageous Belarusian Union exile, fights for freedom and justice amidst repression. She is working for the Solidarnost Association that was founded by trade union leaders and activists from Belarus who were forced to leave the country following the liquidation and repression of democratic trade unions. During the congress, we had the opportunity to talk to her about the current situation and the importance of international trade union cooperation.

photo - © Charles Yunck , verdi
Mariya Taradzetskaya // photo - © Charles Yunck

ver.di: After Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions President Alexander Yaroshuk demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine and Belarus, over 30 trade unionists were imprisoned. Many of them remain in prison, with some facing sentences of up to 5 years. The European Parliament demanded in May this year that they have to be immediately released. Can you give us some insights about the current situation?

Mariya: Yes, approximately 30 trade union activists were imprisoned in April 2022, and some of them received sentences of up to 12 years, not just two, three, or even five years. Some of these individuals are elderly and suffer from various health conditions, including heart disease and cancer. It is unlikely that they will be released within the next 10 to 12 years – you can imagine the dire situation. Several resolutions have been passed, calling for the release of not only trade union prisoners but all political prisoners in Belarus. However, these demands have not been heeded due to Belarus's strong ties with Russia. The regime does not seem to be influenced by international rules, resolutions, or sanctions.

Why is he chasing union members in the first place?

Mariya: Independent trade unions pose a threat to the regime as a form of union for workers, as well as organizational and legal support and the ability to defend their rights. The fact is that the state in Belarus is the main employer, the state system is built on the deliberate and systematic violation of workers' rights. The instruments for rooting this system are presidential decrees, controlled ministries and state trade unions. That’s why working contracts in Belarus mostly one year contracts. That makes workers totally dependent on the government with no chance to be protected by trade union.

A lot of workers who tried to protest now are excluded from the profession and can’t find a job. Those who participated a strike are in prison under criminal articles. Most of them are in the list of extremists with tougher conditions of detention in prison

What kind of support are you hoping for from this Congress and other trade unions, including national trade unions?

Mariya: We hope for the united support of all our partners, particularly trade unions, not only in Germany but also in other countries. We ask to organize a three-party dialogue involving trade unions, governments and our organization, following the guidelines set in the 33rd paragraph* accepted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and new resolutions and values from the European Union (EU). This support would be invaluable as conditions for prisoners in Belarus continue to deteriorate.

Is it even possible for trade unions to have any influence or operate under these conditions in Belarus?

Mariya: No, unfortunately it's impossible. There are no civil organizations left in Belarus; they have all been dissolved or are government-controlled. The Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus, a fake trade union, serves the government's interests rather than protecting labor rights. I call for a tripartite dialogue between trade unions in Germany, PGP, other trade unions, and federations in our partner countries.

What does this situation mean for you personally? Are you working in exile now?

Mariya: Yes, working in exile is the only option because all civil organizations in Belarus have been dismantled, and those who remain are either in prison or have left the country. Belarus even changed its criminal code to prohibit any unregistered activity. Engaging in political or any form of activism in Belarus is highly dangerous.

So, what steps do you believe are necessary to restore freedom of association and labor rights in Belarus?

Mariya: We are currently working on ideas and measures to establish a council on Belarus. We invite all our partners and organizations to participate in discussions on these measures and engage in a tripartite dialogue to achieve freedom of association in Belarus. This includes holding the Belarusian government accountable for human rights violations and adhering to ILO conventions. We are still in the process of developing these ideas. We also need to monitor the situation with organizations, companies, and sanctions. There are various ways to push for change at the political and government levels within EU member countries and potentially beyond. It's crucial to inform workers in Germany and other countries about the real situation in Belarus to counteract misinformation.

It seems there is still some confusion and misinformation due to propaganda.

Mariya: Yes, there is still a lot of misinformation.Even now, with the acceptance of the 33rd paragraph against Belarus, it's clear that the Belarusian regime does not represent the Belarusian workers or society at all.

Does this Congress provide you with more confidence?

Mariya: Yes, it's crucial and strengthens our resolve in the struggle. We see the support from a significant number of people, especially within major trade unions like ver.di and other confederations. This support shows that Belarusian people are not isolated from Europe and that Belarusian workers are not isolated from the international labor movement. Even in the face of Lukashenko's regime, they can still rely on the support of the international community, which is vital for them.

Nevertheless we call our partners for solidarity actions in any form online and offline, for spreading of Belarusian agenda among members as well as supporting our campaign about 33 paragraph. In cooperation with association “Salidarnast” organise meetings, workshops, conferences on the Belarusan issue on the basis of their trade unions. Any humanitarian support would also be greatly appreciated.

We hope that all these measures, along with the organization of dialogue at the government level and monitoring of the implementation of ILO recommendations, can bring Lukashenko's regime closer to its collapse

*The ILO implemented 33 paragraph against Belarus. That happened before only once in the history of the ILO against Myanmar. The Lukashenko regime systematically violates fundamental ILO conventions and workers' rights from the first year of formation.



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