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 have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.
In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.
The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.
There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.
That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.