Who is young in age and young in minds…
In the year of 2008 the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions will mark its 15th anniversary. The leader of the BKDP Alexander Yaroshuk narrates about the gains and failings of last year and of the jubilee period and gives his forecast and plans for future.
– A 15 -year period is quite a serious time span sufficient enough to characterize the organization. Different events and happenings have taken place; there have been ups-and-downs; active periods have alternated with calm ones. But only the spirit of the Congress has never changed. It was, it is now and it will be in future a real democratic organization. Its mission is to serve the workers. This spirit has insured the survivability of our organization in extremely difficult situations in which our union has been forced to function recently. It is only due to the spirit and the ideology that we have managed to get second breathe, to recover lost grounds and to update the organization.
Last year speaks for itself. The members of our affiliates could clearly see themselves the results of their long-term struggle. The most remarkable event was the restoration of the legitimate place in the tripartite National Council for Labor and Social Issues. This means that we have restored the right to participate in the social dialogue on the national level.
As a result of long-run negotiations and arbitral court proceedings the largest BKDP affiliate – the Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BNP) – has managed to sign national Tariff Agreement in chemical sector. Half of the functioning primary-level union organizations (12) either have concluded the collective agreements or associated with them. It is the most remarkable indication for all years of BKDP existence.
In 2007 the trend of further recognition of the BKDP on the international arena continued. We can say without exaggeration that today our organization is known on all the continents. The BKDP was among the organizations which have founded the Pan-European Regional Council (PERC) – first continental organization that united all European national trade union centers affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Our organization received one place in Executive Council of PERC, one of its governing bodies. It is the confirmation of the special attitude towards the BKDP on the part of the international trade union movement.
One more indication of recognition of our organization is the affiliation of BKDP with Baltic Network of Trade Unions (BASTUN) as a partner organization notwithstanding that Belarus does not geographically belong to this area.
Thr BKDP maintained active relations with friendly national centers. The Declaration on cooperation with the legendary Polish “”Solidarnost” trade union was signed, partnership contacts and joint projects were implemented with the colleagues from FNV the Netherlands, LO-TCO Sweden, LO Denmark, DGB Germany, SAK Finland, CGIL Italy, LPSK and “Solidarumas” from Lithuania., FNPR, VKT and KTR from Russia, FPU and KSPU Ukraine.
– How did your legitimate membership in the tripartite National Council for Labor and Social Issues (NCLSI) and the number of signed company collective agreements influence the activities of the BKDP?
– You must admit that the fundamental sense of setting up and functioning of trade unions is rooted in abilities and capacities to protect the rights and interests of union members through the collective bargaining. If there is no collective bargaining the union will have very little in common with the organization representing workers. In all respects the BKDP represents a standard union and has the right to represent the interests of its members on all the three levels of social dialogue – national, sectoral and regional and company level. We can state with good reason: the BKDP today is the only real and independent trade union organization in the country which really exists and functions in the companies and affects labor relations. The restoration of the membership in the National Council for Labor and Social Issues automatically entailed the recognition of the BKDP as a party to General Agreement. Regardlees the decorative image the NCLSI has and its poor impact on social and economic policy due to known reasons, nevertheless, we cannot say that our participation in the Council is useless and mere waist of time, especially when you take into account that the NCLSI members have already fallen out of a habit to hear alternative and critical voices concerning the situation in the country. Last year we raised the most acute problems that bother all the workers: abolishing of short-term contracts labor, withdrawal of social benefits for the most vulnerable categories of population, inadmissibility of adoption of the Law on pension insurance which deprives those pensioners who still work in hazardous conditions. I believe that we managed to achieve certain gains. Owing to joint efforts of the whole organization and of the Independent Miners’ Union at RUP “Belaruskaliy” in particular, the positive amendments have been introduced into the “Law on pension insurance”.
It will not be an exaggeration to say that the existence of BKDP affiliates have made it possible for the workers to have not formal collective agreements as they had before and have even today in most of the unions of the state-controlled FPB but real and updated collective agreements. Owing to it and other contributions the influence of our organizations keeps growing. The recent results of the sociological surveys conducted by independent institutions showed that the rating of democratic trade unions today is one of the highest among all state, non-governmental, political and civic organizations in the country. It is much higher than that of FPB.
– Does it all mean that there are no threats to the existence of the BKDP today and the union center does not face serious problems?
– Quite the opposite. The nature of the political system of the country and the nature of the BKDP are absolute and uncompromising antipodes. Last year events proved that. Offenses against the union and its members as well as pressure, blackmailing and threatening never stopped. The members of the primary independent union at OAO “GrodnoAzot” chemical company feel every day all the delights of the velvet dictatorship. Under the threat of dismissals, termination or non-extension of labor contracts which became a real calamity for the workers, the employer of the company has already forced almost 90 % workers to leave the independent union. Using similar methods the administration tried to do the same things with independent unions at OAO “Polimir” in Novopolotsk, at UP “Lies” in Baran, Vitebsk region and at Brest Pedagogical Pushkin University.
The cynicism of Belarusian authorities knows no limits. For instance, the Free Metalworkers’ Union (SPM) has become a kind of a target and a shooting range for exercising low-grade technologies of eliminating independent trade union movement. This organization is subjected to a real execution. Every year justice agencies with maniac-like persistency verify with bias its membership. Later the identified union members suffer from the pressure on the part of the employer of the company.
After the last so called “verification” the Ministry of Justice in its letter has urged to change the status of the union: from national branch union to territorial. Of course, we have never accepted such situations and are not going to do it now.
– You have painted the picture in black colors. Does it mean that the BKDP has no perspectives for its development?
– We are clear in our mind that the independent trade union movement can exist perfectly and keep developing only when democratic transformations will take place in the country. It would be ridiculous to allot global tasks. Our major goal is to preserve the organization. We are achieving this goal quite successfully for the recent years. The membership despite of sufficient losses in some organizations has not been reduced for the recent years. It may seem amazing but it is true that under such dramatic circumstances the Independent Miners’ Union at RUP“Belaruskaliy” has increased its membership by almost one third! Now it has 4,5 thousand members. Same can be said about the OAO “Mozyr oil refinery”. The number of members in this independent union has exceeded the supporters of the union belonging to FPB.
The encouraging sign is that more young people have joined the independent unions. Such a trend can be observed practically in all the BKDP affiliates. For instance, more than 300 young people have joined both the Free Trade Union (SPB) and Free Metalworkers’ Union (SPM). The creation of Women’s Network last year has made the BKDP more attractive.
For certain, we shall survive even under such difficult conditions.
Firstly, because we represent the struggling organization and no one, even using bars, pressure, blackmailing and threats, cannot destroy the aspiration of people for freedom, democracy and justice.
Secondly, the word “trade union solidarity” is not a vox. We are a part of one world-wide trade union family and for all these years our Brothers and Sisters were giving us their helping hands and support.
– Last year the European Union suspended the GSP preferences in trade for Belarus because of violation of trade union rights. Nevertheless, the Belarus Government is not making haste to return the preferences to the country. It has not only fulfilled 12 recommendations of the ILO urging to eliminate the violations. Moreover, it goes on pressing the independent unions. What would be the next development of the situation? What do you think of it?
– The story around the preferences is quite an instructive one. Suffice it to say that it was the only case for almost 14 years of the existence of the current regime when a well-deserved rebuff was offered to it as well as to its impudence and permissiveness. It has happened owing to our organization. This situation is a unique one since the European Union from the moment of introduction of preferences into practice in 1971 has seen it proper to invoke severe sanctions only two times. The first country that suffered this punishment was Myanmar (Burma) and the second one was Belarus.
Let’s not make premature plans, but it is hardly believable that our Government is able seriously to decide to implement all ILO recommendations and in full scope and thus to bring the preferences back to the country. Nevertheless, everything may happen. The new version of the Law on Trade Unions that the Parliament is going to adopt will most likely become a kind of a proper message. For the time being owing to our efforts and work in the tripartite NCLSI and in the Council for improvement of the labor legislation in the Ministry of Labor the adoption of this Law has been postponed. Last year the Law did not appear. Let us hope for the triumph of the common sense so that the Law could not to appear in the current year.
– What plans the Congress has for the year 2008?
– Let us go back to the beginning of our conversation. This year is peculiar one. Firstly, we shall celebrate 15th anniversary of the foundation of the BKDP. Secondly, we shall have our next regular convention. That is why this year we cannot and have no right to lower the level of our achievements. We pose the task to take part in designing and signing of the General Agreement between the Government, organizations of trade unions and employers for the period of 2009-2011, to sign as more collective agreements at the companies as it may be possible. We shall be consistent in abolishing the short-term contracts. We shall start the campaign on involving the unions into the process of privatization so as it could not take the workers by surprise. The privatization should be conducted publicly, without the infringement of workers interests and with involvement of trade unions.
Further strengthening of BKDP influence on the international arena will be among the BKDP priorities as well as affiliation of one of our unions with the International Metalworkers Federation; intensifying trade union education; further development of women’s and youth movement within the BKDP, many other big and minor activities that accompany those who is young in age and in minds.
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