Authorities attempt to control unemployment and growth of social tension
Amid harsh austerity measures on the labour market, the Belarusian authorities control the situation and are ready to prevent protest activity among workers. Belarusian enterprises and organisations, experiencing fall in exports, overstocked warehouses and production slowdown, cut their costs by reducing salaries and laying-off workers. Most likely, the authorities will try to maintain social and political stability by further lay-offs, reduced working hours and targeted repressions and by reducing worker’s wage expectations.
President Lukashenko has expressed concern about the situation in the Industry Ministry enterprises and growing tension in labour collectives.
In Belarus, official unemployment rate is low – 0.7%, but the number of registered unemployed increased by 26.8% in late January (up to 30700 people). Independent analysts estimate the unemployment in the country is much higher - around 5-6%, which is ‘natural’ for the Belarusian economy. The Belarusian authorities anticipate the unemployment to grow in 2015 up to 1.5%, while de facto unemployment might be much higher - up to 10% and higher - due to reduced working hours.
In 2014, part-time employment increased by almost 40%. Most often, large state-owned industrial enterprises cut working hours and offered unpaid leave to the employees. Since early 2015, the situation has deteriorated and spread to other economic sectors: construction, trade and banking, affecting both public and private sectors. In addition, individual entrepreneurs were prompted to suspend their activities due to new technical regulations introduced by the authorities within the Customs Union and EAEC.
Since early 2015, enterprises’ payroll debt has grown rapidly. According to the National Statistics Committee, as of March 1st, 510 enterprises had overdue payroll to 87,300 employees, on February 1st, only 277 organisations did not pay wages to 49,300 employees. The overall overdue payment is Br 300.6 billion, or 1.7% of the salary fund in January 2015. Furthermore, many large state-owned enterprises have reduced wages in Belarusian roubles.
Due to the deteriorating situation on the labour market, the Belarusian authorities have decided to postpone the introduction of the tax on "social parasites", which was supposed to be signed in mid-February. In anticipation of this tax, the employment centres were crowded with those willing to register and could not fill the demand for jobs. For example, circa 14500 workers have been laid-off, while only 9800 have found new jobs.
Regardless of wage cuts and non-payments, many workers are trying to keep their jobs and do not leave for new ones. The competition on the labour market has increased - not only due to lay-offs, but also due to migration of workers from Russia. Due to the recession, Russian labour market has lost its attractiveness. In addition, the Belarusian labour market is under some pressure from migrant workers and refugees from Ukraine.
The Belarusian authorities watch labour market very closely –their main objective before the presidential elections is to keep the balance between the macroeconomic stability and well-being of the population. At a meeting with directors of the largest state-owned enterprises, President Lukashenko reiterated his requirement, “I want to emphasise once again that this year I do not ask the government for a breakthrough or a wild production growth. The main objective is not to make the situation worse. However, in January it has not improved”. The government is trying to reduce tension in society with short-term measures, eg by offering paid public works or seasonal employment in agriculture.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities have demonstrated the ability to implement tough measures if protest activity grows – they have conducted a showcase training for internal troops on how to disperse protests. In addition, the president constantly reminds the population about the futility of protests by emphasising that “maidan will not happen in Belarus”.
The authorities will seek to maintain employment at the highest possible level in order to prevent the growth of social tension in society. Meanwhile, worsened working conditions and some increase in unemployment are unlikely to lead to an increase in protest activity among employees.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.