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2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Belarus

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 9 June 2010
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Belarus, 9 June 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c4fec8fc.html [accessed 21 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 9,600,000
Capital: Minsk
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

After a brief period of renewed dialogue between the authorities and the BKDP, the situation has again deteriorated. Trade union members are routinely harassed, blackmailed and even arrested. Three people lost their jobs in connection with trade union activities, but one of them was reinstated by an unprecedented court ruling in a trade union discrimination case. Unions submitted an international complaint about the government's attempts to weaken the right to strike. Restrictive labour laws hamper trade union activities.

Trade union rights in law

Trade unions operate in a harsh legal environment. The 1996 Constitution transferred all powers to the President, giving him the right to enact decrees that carry the weight of law. While the Constitution technically recognises freedom of association, union registration is extremely difficult. The minimum membership requirement is prohibitively high, and a letter from the employer confirming the address of the union is often needed. Trade unions can be deleted from the register by a decision of the registrar, without any court procedure, if the organisation is held to violate legislation or its own statutes, or if the union's recorded data is no longer correct. Foreign assistance may not be offered without the consent of the authorities.

Furthermore, while the right to collective bargaining is recognised, disputes that arise during bargaining and that can not be settled by the parties must be referred to conciliation, or, failing conciliation, to the National Labour Arbitrage.

Strikes can only be held within three months after conciliation has failed, and the length of the strike must be announced in advance. Furthermore, the President has wide powers to cancel or suspend a strike. A minimum service must also be ensured during all strikes. Finally, "Discrediting the Republic of Belarus", meaning giving "false statements" on the country's political, social or economic situation, is punishable with arrest or imprisonment for up to two years.

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2009

Background: With the adoption of the European Union Eastern Partnership, relations might receive a new dimension, however the restrictions against Belarusian high officials were not lifted as the country failed to make progress with respect to free elections, freedom of expression and freedom of association. In December, President Lukashenko confirmed that his government was planning to tighten control of the Internet. The independent trade union movement consolidated when the Radio-Electronic Workers Union joined the Congress of Democratic Trade Unions. Lay-offs were rare, but many workers were forced to take a leave of absence or to go part-time. Wage arrears were not uncommon.

Extensive right to draft fixed-term contracts: The entry into force of Presidential Decree No. 29 of 1999 has given the employers the right to conclude short-term contracts (1 year) with all workers. The conclusion of these contracts is completely at the employers' discretion, and workers previously employed on indefinite contracts can be dismissed if they refuse to accept the new ones. The short-term contracts, which have quickly become omnipresent, were introduced to "discipline" and essentially blackmail workers, and used to get rid of activists and undermine independent trade unions. When companies have to downsize, workers' contracts are simply not renewed without any severance pay.

However, courts have recently accepted that the use of short-term contracts can be restricted by means of collective bargaining: on 24 September a trade union member was re-instated by a court order, since, according to the applicable collective agreement, the employer was obliged to renew the contracts of "hard workers who did not breach discipline".

Dispute resolution slow: The conciliation procedure for an industrial dispute usually takes a minimum of 45 days, and the resulting terms are usually not observed. Thus, in practice, a dispute can be suspended for several months.

Anti-union policies bring the loss of EU trade benefits: On 20 December 2006, the European Union's Council of Ministers announced its decision to withdraw Belarus' benefits under the system of generalised special preferences (GSP). The decision was the culmination of nearly three years of monitoring violations of trade union rights and the government's reluctance to follow the Commission of Inquiry recommendations. The EU decision came into effect on 21 June 2007, following the government's failure to achieve tangible progress in implementing the Commission of Inquiry Recommendations. The EU stressed that once Belarus has shown that it respects basic trade union rights, the decision on GSP can be reversed.

The European Commission confirmed the EU position could only change once the ILO conventions were fully implemented, and that the EU followed the ILO appraisal of the situation. Earlier, in June, the International Labour Conference had concluded that, while the measures already taken were duly appreciated, the Government was to "redouble its efforts", and that substantive improvements were yet to be achieved. The Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) has since called on the Government to concentrate on substantive reforms instead of lobbying to bring the EU trade preferences back.

Improvements followed by renewed anti-union pressure: On 20 February, the tripartite National Council on Labour and Social Issues endorsed the government's Action Plan for the implementation of the ILO Commission of Inquiry recommendations, and in April and May the Council for the Improvement of Legislation in the Social and Labour Sphere tried to find ways to move forward on issues such as the denial of trade union registration and anti-union dismissals. By the end of the first half of the year, independent trade unions were cautiously optimistic of the chances for renewed respect for trade union rights in the country.

The Government's actions were, however, obstructed by the "traditional" Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FPB), an organisation with close ties to the authorities that could lose its domineering position if the standards on freedom of association were to be implemented properly. During the year, FPB lobbied for special privileges for "most representative" trade unions, disseminated instructions on company-level collective bargaining that would get smaller trade unions side-lined, and "forgot" to extend an invitation to the tripartite National Council to other trade unions. Furthermore, the pressure against the independent (non-FPB) trade unions was renewed in July, and some of the earlier positive steps were reversed: on 23 October, President Lukashenko signed Ordinance No. 518, which disbanded the commission that returned deductions on the rent for trade union offices and meeting rooms to all trade unions, whilst extending the reduced rent only to the FPB and its organisations.

Anti-union harassment was also reported in different companies and regions. On 3 September, the Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) adopted a declaration asking the government to take urgent measures against recent anti-union campaigns, and announced its intention to leave the National Council on Labour and Social Issues if the government continued the policy of paying lip service to the ILO while suppressing independent trade unions.

Registrations denied: Despite the dissolution of the Republican Registration Commission, independent trade unions still face enormous legal and practical hurdles during the registration process. On 26 April, the Radio-Electronics Workers' Union (REWU) noted that three of its organisations had been denied registration since the beginning of the year, and that permission to organise pickets to demand registration had been denied on 15 occasions. The Government maintained that it can refuse to register REWU organisations if they include workers not from the radio-electronic industry.

Union busting at Brest State University: In August, members of the Free Trade Union (SPB) at A.S. Pushkin Brest State University, were called back to work from their annual holidays and forced to choose either to leave SPB or incur problems with their dissertations and risk not having their employment contracts renewed. "Either you resign from SPB and we work together, or you do not resign and we do not work together" was the rector's words to Oleg Golenko, a member of the SPB committee and a music instructor at the faculty of psychology and education science. Five trade unionists gave in to the employer, but Golenko, whose contract would expire in July, resigned from his job instead, in protest against blackmailing.

In the meantime the local government asked the head of SPB at the university to submit all documents on trade union activities (statutes, membership fees, financial planning, and minutes of meetings) in two days' time. The trade union had already been inspected by the tax authorities in 2008, when no irregularities were found. The university has been trying to get rid of SPB since 2005.

Trade union event almost thwarted: On 27 August, five Dutch activists representing the trade union confederation FNV (Netherlands) and fifteen Belarusian colleagues representing youth committees of the Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) arrived at a resort facility outside of Minsk, where a conference hall was booked for a session of the International Summer School for young trade unionists. However, the next morning, management refused to honour the booking of the conference hall. When BKDP deputy-president called on the director's office to clarify the situation, he found the director teary-eyed in the company of a man who appeared to be a plain-clothed intelligence officer. Trade unionists decided to go ahead with the event outdoors.

Independent trade unions sidelined: Two chemical companies – Naftan and Grodno Azot – obstructed the work of the local organisations of the Independent Trade Union (BNP) by denying BNP recognition and the right to bargain collectively. Grodno Azot claimed that BNP had to "prove its existence as a legitimate organisation", while Naftan OAO harassed BNP members: a worker who joined BNP on 6 October was intimidated and blackmailed by the floor manager, and forced to resign on 3 November.

Metalworker loses his job, supporters arrested: On 20 October, Yuri Loban, a loaders' foreman with a flawless employment record at the Belarusian Automobile Plant (BelAZ) in Zhodino was fired for showing too much interests in leaflets on workers' rights distributed by the Radio-Electronics Workers' Union (REWU).

REWU, who wowed to stand for Loban, scheduled a collection of signatures in his support on 24 November (the expiry date of Loban's contract), but police interfered, seizing union materials and arresting activists. Loban himself was arrested after his last work shift in front of the factory gates by plain-clothes officers. Local REWU leader Nikolai Pokhabov and several other activists were taken into custody for several hours.

Court reverses anti-union dismissal: On 18 December, the Chashniki district court in Vitebsk Oblast reinstated Alexey Gabriel, leader of the Free Trade Union SPB at the Lukoml Hydroelectric plant. The court ordered the employer to renew Gabriel's contract for the duration of his term as a trade union officer. Gabriel's employment contract was due to expire on 30 September, and in August the company director told him that his contract would not be renewed due to his "vigorous trade union activities". During the hearings the employer denied that Gabriel's activities had played a role in him losing his job, but the unionist, supported by the Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), was able to prove his case. For the first time, a worker was able to convince the court to overturn anti-union discrimination.

Unionist under surveillance: The president of the Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) Aliaksandr Yarashuk is often thoroughly searched by the customs and border control on his way out of the country and back. The latest incident took place on 21 December when Yarashuk was returning from Ukraine.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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