TRADE UNION RIGHTS IN BELARUS
BelarusOne of the successor states to the Soviet Union bordering Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, Belarus has a population of 10 million mainly Russian and Belorussian speaking people. Once one of the richest republics of the USSR the per capita annual average income is now only $1,290. President Lukashenko was first elected in 1994, but in 1996 he held a referendum which gave him powers to enact laws and to override Parliament, whilst extending his presidential mandate. The International Community (EU, Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) refused to recognise the results of either the referendum or subsequent presidential and parliamentary elections.
Action by the International CommunityThere have been several initiatives by international organisations expressing growing concern about the human rights situation in Belarus:
On 15 April 2004 the United Nations Commission of Human Rights (UNCHR) adopted a resolution expressing its deep concern at human rights abuses in Belarus including the murder of political opponents of the regime, arbitrary arrests and harassment of opposition activists, the closure of NGOs and independent media and the failure of the government of Belarus to co-operate with the UNCHR. It decided to appoint a Special Rapporteur to work on Belarus.
On 7th January 2004 the European Commission announced that it was considering removing Belarus' preferential trade status with the EU due to persistent violations of trade unions rights to freedom of association. This followed a formal complaint against the Belarus authorities by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) in January 2003.
In November 2003 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) launched a Commission of Inquiry into trade union rights in Belarus - again following a complaint lodged by the ICFTU in 2000 - effectively putting Belarus in the same position as Burma. In November, the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) examined several issues in relation to the 2000 complaint. The CFA concluded, among other things, that there had been "undue interference by the public authorities in recent trade union elections in Belarus." Belarus figured among the few countries placed by the CFA on the list of serious and urgent cases. The Observer mission from the ILO visited Belarus in the middle of April 2004.
The Legal SituationViolations of law: The 1996 Constitution transferred all powers to the President of Belarus, giving him the right to enact decrees that carry the weight of law. This constitution technically recognises the right of workers to form and join trade unions, but both the Trade Union Law of January 2000 and several Presidential Decrees contain serious violations of trade union rights.
Compulsory registration: Presidential Decree No. 2 of January 1999 required all previously registered trade unions at national, branch and enterprise level to re-register. If a trade union is not registered, its activities are banned and the organisation has to be dissolved. The long and complicated procedures include an obligation on the trade unions to provide the official address of their headquarters. This is often their workplace or the premises of the enterprise. A letter from the management confirming the address is usually required, making trade unions completely dependent on the goodwill of management.
High minimum membership requirements: The same Decree sets forth minimum membership requirements at the national, branch and enterprise level. These are so high that they make it almost impossible to create new unions, and they also undermine the position of existing ones. At the national level, there must be a minimum of 500 founding members representing the majority of the regions of Belarus. A list of names must be sent to the Ministry of Justice.
Heavy limitations on the right to strike: The January 2000 Labour Code imposes severe limitations on the right to strike. Firstly, it imposes very complicated conciliation procedures lasting at least two months. Second, the strike must be held in the three months following the failure of the conciliation procedures. Third, the President may suspend a strike for a period of up to three months or even cancel one, in the interests of national security, public order, public health or when the rights and freedoms of others are threatened. Moreover, the duration of the strike must be specified in advance and a minimum service must be ensured. Strike participants may not receive financial aid or subsidies from foreign organisations.
New decrees: Several new anti-union decrees were adopted in 2001. Presidential Decree No. 8 lays down stringent conditions for the receipt of foreign grants for activities in the country. Foreign funds must be registered with the Human Resources Department, which is directly under the responsibility of the Presidency. The decree prohibits the use of foreign grants in activities related to elections, referenda, meetings, rallies, demonstrations, pickets and strikes, as well as for carrying out seminars or propaganda activity. Decree No.11 makes it practically impossible to carry out protest action. Organisations violating these decrees are liable to dissolution.
Trade Union Rights in PracticeConstant attacks: Democratic rights are not respected in Belarus, least of all trade union rights. The government has sought by every means to undermine, if not eliminate, the trade unions. Workers are actively discouraged from joining independent trade unions.
Harassment: Those who do, face continual pressure at the workplace to leave the union or risk losing their jobs. Members of independent trade unions have been arrested for distributing trade union literature, have had materials confiscated and have been denied access to work sites. Trade union leaders are particular targets for harassment. Threats are taken very seriously in a country where political opponents to the regime have disappeared.
Systematic interference: A report adopted by the ILO's Governing Body in March 2001 condemns Belarus for "numerous and varied attacks on trade union rights" and "regular and systematic interference in trade union activities". The list of allegations in the report included interference in union activities and elections by the government - the head of the presidential administration ordered Ministers and chairs of government committees to interfere in the elections of branch unions - anti-union discrimination and attacks on union assets.
Trade Union federationsThe Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FPB) - this body was effectively taken over by the state in 2002. Its President is a close adviser of President Lukashenko and the FPB is funded by the government.
The Congress of Democratic Trade Unions of Belarus (BDKP) is subject to systematic and regular harassment. An ICFTU seminar last December concluded that the BDKP had effectively been driven underground.Recent examples of anti-trade union actions
- In June 2002 the Ideological Section of the Presidential Administration proposed to liquidate the FPB, and to undertake to set up an association of "independent" unions.
- In July 2002, the FPB Presidium was pressured by the government to elect Leonid Kozik, former Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, as president of the FPB, in replacement of Frantz Vitko, who was coerced into offering a "voluntary resignation."
- Also in July three trade unionists selling the FPB newspaper Belaruskii Chas were taken in for questioning by the police and in August, Aleksandr Starykevich, editor in chief of Belaruskii Chas, the most widely read independent newspaper in Belarus, was sacked, against the will of the FPB Presidium.
- In September 2002 President Lukashenko addressed the Congress of the FPB, openly stating his belief that trade unions must be "incorporated into the government authorities"
- Also in September 2002, Aleksander Yaroshuk, President of the Agricultural Workers' Union, one of the few remaining opponents of President Lukashenko, who had opposed the eviction of Frantz Vitko and the dismissal of Aleksandr Starykevitch, was removed from office and replaced by the former Agriculture Deputy Minister, Vladimir Samosyuk.
- the Belarusian Trade Union of Air-Traffic Controllers (BPAD) which decided to join the BDKP was de-registered by the Ministry of Justice
- Alyaksandr Yaroshuk, head of the BDKP, was jailed on 18 September 2003. He was charged with contempt of court after having written an article criticising the Belarus Supreme Court's decision to close down the independent air-traffic control trade union.
- In November 2003 Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, leader of the Belarusian Union of Automobile and Agricultural Implement Workers was imprisoned for 10 days for leading a demonstration against government-led anti-union intimidation.
What UNISON can doThe most effective form of action is to raise the profile of what's happening in Belarus amongst British trade unionists and the general public. Most people would be shocked to learn that Belarus remains Europe's last dictatorship in 2004.
UNISON nationally, as well as regionally and locally, should be putting pressure on the British government to act on Belarus in all international bodies such as the EU, UN and ILO. We should also protest to the Belarus authorities every time there is an attack on trade union rights.
Unfortunately, it is very hard to provide concrete support in Belarus itself. In recent months international pro-democracy groups have been denied visas to enter the country, or if they manage to get in, are subject to constant surveillance by the Belarus KGB. Last August, for example, a trainer from the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (a think tank and democracy building foundation linked to the German social democrats) was arrested in the middle of the night and deported. The whole event was filmed and shown on state TV where he was accused of trying to organise sex-trafficking. Belarus trade unionists and pro-democracy activists are also either denied exit visas or are harassed for having met with international organisations.
What UNISON members can do
- Raise the issue with your MP and ask her/him to take up the matter with Jack Straw and Mike O'Brien at Foreign Office
- Likewise, contact your MEP so that they can maintain pressure on the European Commission to suspend Belarus's preferential trading rights with the EU
- Write to the Ambassador of Belarus, Dr Alyaksei Mazhuhou (Embassy of Belarus, 6 Kensington Court, London W6 5DL)
- Amnesty International will also be starting a new campaign on Belarus in the near future