Elimination of political undesirables

    Why do members of the independent trade union movement in Belarus are persecuted and suppressed?

    On April 19, the most massive attack on independent trade unions was carried out in Belarus: more than 20 trade union activists were arrested, including leaders of three independent trade unions, deputy chairmen, almost all representatives of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) and other members of the independent trade union movement. Searches were carried out at the offices of the Free Metalworkers’ Union (SPM) and the BKDP. Currently, 10 of our colleagues remain in the pre-trial detention center, among them – BKDP Chairman and Deputy Chairman, leaders of the Trade Union of Radio and Electronic Industry Workers (REP), SPM activists and others.

    They were charged under Article 342 of Part 1 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus “Organization of group actions that grossly violate public order and are associated with a clear disobedience to the lawful demands of government officials or that caused disruption of transport, enterprises, institutions or organizations, or active participation in such actions in the absence of signs more serious crime”.  In the course of the investigation, new articles appear in the case.

    Despite the fact that these charges concern a specific person rather than an organization as a whole, such mass detentions resulted in blocking the work of independent trade unions. Besides, they also have the required intimidating effect on the other members. This operation looks like a total crackdown on the remaining civil groups inside Belarus and the elimination of any opportunity to defend their rights.

    The analytics of the online IPG Journal – International Politics and Society  states that in the field of labour rights protection, Belarus is now at the level of the 1980s. Traditional trade unions are a substitute. They are a tool for the dissemination of state propaganda; they act on the side of the employer and easily agree to the policy of “belt-tightening” – the deterioration of working conditions and the quality of life of workers. The Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FPB) functions freely due to government support, non-public mandatory membership (about 4 million people) and membership dues and fees. Under their clear accompaniment, labour collectives know neither the terms of collective agreements, nor the procedure for signing them, and even their labour rights. Often, workers do not even have a clear understanding of the conditions of remuneration and rates. Moreover, not all workers are aware of the amount of tax in Belarus withheld from their earnings.

    Any reforms proposed by the government always affect the interests of workers. Especially when it comes to “big-bang” neoliberal reforms. In recent years, the current labour legislation in Belarus has been reformed not in favour of workers.

    In turn, real independent trade unions have been defending workers in court for 30 years in ruthless conditions, resisting legal ignorance, and reporting violations to the International Labour Organization. That is why they are so unwanted by the government and are constantly being persecuted and pressured: from the introduction of a mandatory legal address when registering organizations to threats to ordinary members. Now the BKDP has about 10,000 members, which is two times less than in 2002.

    It is important to note that irreversible social processes are taking place in modern Belarus. The society has entered a phase of psychological maturation. People are ready to understand important issues, to be enlightened, ready for individual and collective responsibility. They have a desire to influence the life of the country at different levels: from ennobling their own yards or districts to negotiations with the government.

    Unfortunately, most Belarusians do not have much experience in building and functioning democratic institutions. The country more than ever needs good experts, economists, lawyers, designers and other professionals who could participate in the development of anti-crisis measures, a plan to preserve jobs, and measures to prevent the decline of the Belarusian economy.

    Today, trade unions, perhaps, remain the longest-existing and understandable structure. Moreover, global trade union cooperation at all levels is constantly developing. Independent trade unions have a principled stance on the subject of reform, based on the statutory documents and fundamental conventions of the ILO. These are red lines beyond which, according to the trade unions, no reforms can go. This is especially true for decent work, the public sector and public goods, foreign investment, natural resources and the environment. People, labour and nature are not goods. This means that we cannot always rely solely on free market instruments, we need guarantees. And this is the main reason why it is worth considering a strategy for protecting the interests of workers through the organized actions of democratic trade unions right now.