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2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - Belarus

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 6 June 2012
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - Belarus, 6 June 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fd88964c.html [accessed 22 July 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: 9,595,000
Capital: Minsk

ILO Core Conventions Ratified:

29 (Forced Labour (1930))
87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (1948))
98 (Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining (1949))
100 (Equal Remuneration for Work of Equal Value (1951))
105 (Abolition of Forced Labour (1957))
111 (Discrimination in Employment and Occupation (1958))
138 (Minimum Age for Employment (1973))
182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999))

Reported Violations – 2012

Arrests: 5
Imprisonments: 1
Dismissals: 3

Documented violations – actual number of cases may be higher

Introduction

The year did not meet the expectations of the independent unions in terms of any progress by the government in implementing the ILO's recommendations. Intimidation and pressure on workers forcing them to leave independent trade unions continued as before. Employers and the authorities continued to deny independent unions the right to bargain collectively and sign collective agreements. Discrimination based on union affiliation remained widespread.

Background

When Alexander Lukashenko, widely referred to as Europe's last dictator, began his fourth term as President in January 2011 the EU responded by reinstating a travel ban on him and freezing his assets. The regime confirmed its authoritarian reputation when it put more than 30 political activists, including four opposition leaders, on trial for their part in the December protests over alleged vote rigging in the December 2010 elections. In May opposition leader Andrei Sannikov was sentenced to five years in prison for organising the protests. Then in July hundreds were beaten, manhandled and arrested after a month of nationwide anti-government protests. In November prominent human rights activist Ales Belyatski was sentenced to four and a half years in prison, supposedly for tax evasion, in a move believed to be politically motivated. The country also faced economic woes with its most serious balance of payments crisis since independence which drained its hard currency reserves.

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 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. The legal framework for trade union rights was further undermined when on 17 May 2011 amendments were introduced to the Law on Trade Unions deleting any reference to ILO Conventions and Recommendations as setting out the basic principles of labour and trade union rights in the country.

Foreign assistance may not be offered without the consent of the authorities. This has still not been changed despite the recommendations of the ILO Commission of Inquiry. In fact, as the BDKP has pointed out, no clear and time-bound action plan for the full implementation of all the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry has yet has been prepared.

Furthermore, while the right to collective bargaining is recognised, disputes that arise during bargaining and that cannot 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.

In November 2011, the regime adopted amendments to the Law on Mass Activities concerning rallies, demonstrations, picketing and other mass actions, seriously limiting the rights of trade unions and their members. 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.

Link to additional detailed information regarding the legislation on the ITUC website here

In practice

No real effort to resolve trade union rights violations: There were no major moves by the government during 2011 to resolve the systematic violations of labour and trade union rights. The small changes introduced were more a demonstration of restraint, compared to the brutal interference in trade union activities and structures that took place in the past. The aim would appear to be to demonstrate that independent trade unionism has its "space" and can work "freely" as long as they remain within an acceptable framework. As soon as the activities of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) did start to have an impact among the working people of Belarus, however, the government instigated and supported actions aimed at swiftly putting an end to any initiative that could result in the expansion of independent trade unionism in the country.

Independent unions still under pressure: The BKDP reported that the independent unions and their members at the "Naftan" Oil Refinery, the OAO "GrodnoAzot" chemical company and OAO "Mozyr" Oil Refinery were still under pressure in 2011 and that anti-union discrimination still exists at these and other companies.

Extensive right to draft short-term contracts: Following Presidential Decree No. 29, 1999, legalising fixed short-term contracts, the use of one-year fixed term contracts has become so widespread that 90% of the workforce are now employed on such contracts, with no obligation of renewal. Refusal to switch from a permanent to one-year contract has been considered a legitimate cause for dismissal.

ILO recommendations still not implemented, EU trade benefits are withdrawn:

Since 21 June 2007, following the conclusions and recommendations of the ILO, the Council of Ministers of the European Union has partially restricted the access of Belarus to the more favourable provisions of the EU GSP trade policy.

Despite the ILO Commission of Inquiry recommendations, as well as numerous conclusions by the Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) of the International Labour Conference (ILC) and of the ILO Governing Body, the Government of Belarus has so far failed to act constructively on the key recommendations and bring labour and trade union rights into line with international labour standards. The Action Plan for the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry that was prepared by the government in 2009 (see the 2010 edition of the Annual Survey) has given rise to more politically correct rhetoric and some cosmetic adjustments, but has failed to address the substance of the violations.

Any action on the part of the government, like restoring the preferential rate of the premises rented out to the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) in 2010, or allowing the possibility of signing national tariff and collective agreements, will not solve the problem of the true restoration of trade union rights in Belarus. The efforts made by the government were directed at technical issues rather than the substance of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry. This is clearly demonstrated by the continuing obstacles to registering newly created unions and by the pressure still imposed on members of independent unions, using the short-term contract system. The number of violations of trade union rights has been increasing. Members of trade unions affiliated to the BKDP are still suffering from anti-union discrimination, including dismissals and the non-renewal of employment contracts, pressure and harassment.

Violations

Arrest and detention of members of independent unions:

Pavel Stanevski, an SPB (Free Trade Union) activist from Grodno town was sentenced to eight days in jail by the Frunzenski district court in Minsk. Pavel Stanevski came to Minsk from Grodno on 19 April 2011 to meet his union colleagues and members of "Our House" Civil Initiative. He was arrested the same day. The court found him guilty of disorderly conduct and using abusive language. The policemen acted as witnesses.

The President of the SPB, Mikhail Kovalkov, was detained by the Bobruisk police and spent more than ten hours in detention. The SPB leader described the behaviour of the police as torture through deprivation of food and the illegal limitation of personal freedom, as during his ten and half hours in custody he was not given any food and could only use the toilet room under police escort. Upon release he was given a document confirming that his detention lasted only three hours. The SPB leader considers that the behaviour of the police amounted to psychological pressure. He believes the reason for his detention and ill treatment may have been that on that day the opposition forces were celebrating Freedom Day – the Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Belarusian People's Republic in 1918.

More discrimination against independent unions: The President of the Belarusian Free Trade Union (SPB) Mikhail Kovalkov, who is also chairperson of the primary SPB union organisation at Bobruisk Tractor Parts and Components Company, was refused access to the workplaces of his union's members. The members of the independent trade union at this company were also deprived of the right to attend the sports and recreation centre belonging to the company, while the members of the state-controlled union were allowed to use it.

Attempts to dissolve the independent unions: The management of OAO "Mozyr Oil Refinery Company" renewed its campaign for the mass withdrawal of workers from the independent union at the company in 2011. In order to force members of the independent union to leave the organisation they held private meetings and individual talks with workers, after which the workers had to write a petition to say they were leaving the BNP union. These petitions are sent directly to the company accounts department and the front office, without notifying the independent union. The management of Mozyr oil refinery has been constantly interfering in the internal affairs of the independent union in recent years, imposing pressure on its members.

Denial of registration of primary-level trade union organisations:

The Polotsk Town Executive Committee refused to register the SPB (Free Trade Union) primary organisation of "Self-employed workers at Polotsk outdoor collective farm market". Belarusian legislation stipulates that primary-level union organisations be registered by local state registering bodies. But the requirement to submit a legal address for the registration procedure often proves an insurmountable obstacle for the independent unions in Belarus.

A confirmation certificate issued by the Manager of the "Sofia" artwork and handicrafts factory containing guarantees for the provision of premises for rent and accommodation for the executive body of the primary union was attached to the SPB application for registration. The Polotsk municipality considered that the letter of guarantee had no legal force, and it became the grounds for denying the registration of the SPB primary union organisation.

Interference by local authorities in trade union activities: On 20 January 2011 the Ministry of Justice sent a fax message to the Free Metalworkers' Union (SPM) asking it to submit, within five days, information on the total membership of the SPM as well as the number of members in its affiliates, names of union leaders and information about trade union dues. The SPM union replied to the Justice Ministry, asking it to explain the reasons for the urgency of its request. Instead of explanations, on 27 January three Justice Ministry clerks visited the SPM union, which shares the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) premises, and demanded to see the minutes of the SPM governing body for the last two years.

Collective bargaining rights withdrawn at oil refinery: The Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BNP) primary-level organisation at the OAO "Naftan" oil refinery once again faced the infringement of collective bargaining principles. The joint commission on bargaining and concluding a new collective agreement was set up at the enterprise at the end of May 2010. It included representatives of the employer of the company, "Belkhimprofsojuz" – another union at the company, and three representatives of the primary BNP organisation. It was agreed that the BNP and "Belkhimprofsojuz" would act as representative parties, each on behalf of its members. However, on 28 January 2011 the employer illegally excluded the BNP primary organisation from the collective bargaining process and from signing the collective agreement. The BNP primary organisation urged the employer to start negotiations and sign a separate collective agreement. However, the employer refused to renew negotiations with the BNP primary union on the grounds that the collective agreement between the workers and the company had already been signed.

Pressure on members of independent unions after the events of 19 December 2010:

Michail Kovalkov – President of the Free Trade Union (SPB) was interrogated in the KGB premises. The interrogation lasted for more than two hours. He was warned that he should not participate in illegal mass events any more. A video camera was used during the interrogation and finally he was told that from that time on his activities would be under special KGB surveillance.

On 14 January 2011 the premises of the Radio Electronics Workers (REP) Union were searched by special police forces on the pretext of checking whether the office had been used as the headquarters of one of the candidates running for the presidency. During the two-hour search the office machines, appliances and equipment were seized, as well as some of the union's internal documents. As a result the activities of the union were paralysed for a certain time. The Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) viewed the search as a gross violation of trade union rights, and a violation of the inviolability of housing and security of property, which are guaranteed by law and the ILO Conventions ratified by Belarus.

On 21 January 2011 the leader of the REP Union Gennady Fedynich was interrogated by Minsk municipal police. The police were interested in his participation in the events of 19 December 2010, the day of the presidential election.

The REP union information officer Nikolai Gerasimenko was subjected to a similar procedure at the Frunzenski Police Station in Minsk.

On 2 February, the apartment belonging to the BKDP Occupational Health and Safety inspector Vladimir Lozovski was searched by three KGB officers. They explained that the search was in connection with the protest rally on 19 December 2010. Several CD-Rom discs were seized.

Right to picket denied: The Novopolotsk local authorities refused to allow the "Naftan" union to organise picketing on 25 February 2011, using the spurious excuse of the influenza epidemic and quarantine that had been introduced in town. The second attempt to organise picketing was scheduled for 5 April but the "Naftan" union was again denied permission by the local authorities on the grounds that only sector-level unions can organise protest actions but not their organisational structures including primary-level organisations. According to the Law on Trade Unions of Belarus and the BNP statutes, all its organisational structures including primary-level unions have full rights including the right to organise mass actions and apply to the local authorities on relevant issues. Moreover, a primary union organisation had been registered and had the status of a legal entity. It is common practice for local authorities to invent different arbitrary grounds to deny mass trade union action, but this particular case was unprecedented.

The Free Metalworkers' Union (SPM) was also denied the right to organise picketing on 1 May, Solidarity Day, in Minsk, Mogilev and in a number of other cities and towns.

Dismissals, pressure and denial of legal address to deter independent unions:

The end of the year saw a sharp rise in the spontaneous disaffiliation of workers from the official Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FPB) in different regions of the country. The reasons given for disaffiliation ranged from the traditionally low level of wages and salaries to the insulting and humiliating treatment of workers by employers. The latter reason was mentioned for the first time. The workers say that the FPB unions not only fail to protect them but become a part of this systematic humiliation and pressure.

The event that attracted the most attention was the mass departure of workers from the FPB at the RUPP "Granite" company in Mikashevichi, a town in the south of the Brest region, at the end of December 2011. The company carries out open mining of natural rocks and produces crushed stones for the production of various construction materials and employs 3,200 workers. Nearly 600 workers announced their joint disaffiliation from the FPB. More than 200 workers, mainly quarry dump truck drivers, applied for affiliation to the Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BNP), affiliated to the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP). At the founding general meeting they set up a primary-level BNP union. The employer, the local authorities, the police and KGB officers launched a big campaign against the newly formed independent union and its leaders and members.

The management launched a series of actions to put pressure on the union members and deter other workers from joining the union. Those attacks were clearly aimed at preventing the development of independent trade union organisations. Although the newly formed primary-level union followed the procedure laid out by Belarusian legislation, the management of the company refused to recognise it or to provide it with a legal address. This legal address, considered by the International Labour Organisation as an obstacle to trade union registration – and as such a violation of fundamental rights – is still necessary under Belarusian law to obtain legal status.

Oleg Stakhaevich, the leader of the newly formed independent union at the RUPP "Granite", affiliated to the BNP, and two more union activists were illegally dismissed from their jobs.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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