Belarus to tighten control over private companies through state-controlled trade unions
Amid shrinking wages, economic slowdown and mass layoffs, the Belarusian authorities seek to strengthen ideological control over employees at private enterprises through official trade unions in order to prevent social tension and dissenting moods. By creating pro-governmental trade unions at private and foreign enterprises, the authorities want to control their owners and to take negotiations with the ILO to the new level. However, this initiative is unlikely to have a long-term impact and will be implemented pro forma only.
Last week, President Lukashenka signed Decree No 4, which introduced amendments to the Decree No 2 of January 26th, 1999 regulating activities of political parties, trade unions and other public associations. The decree aims to simplify the creation of trade unions at enterprises of any ownership form.
In late May, at the Trade Union Federation Congress held in Minsk, President Lukashenka ordered to establish trade unions at all enterprises by mid-2016: “You have written to me directly which companies do not want to create a trade union – like Velcom and others. We know how to work with them... Firstly, I have transferred phones of all public officials from Velcom to MTS. They started worrying. I told them, ‘If you misbehave in Belarus, do not take into account our realities, do not work for our people, you will lose your company’”.
The Belarusian Federation of Trade Unions occupies a special place in the government model created by Lukashenka – along with councils of deputies, and pro-government youth and women’s organizations. The president has repeatedly emphasised, “I have just told the Chairman of the Trade Unions Federation that you are our party of workers. You are the primary implementers of public ideas”.
Since early 2000s, when the FTUB Chairman Victor Goncharik became a presidential candidate, the state has taken full control over trade union activities and now appointment of all FTUB leaders requires formal consent of the president.
As of late 2014, Mihkail Orda, former head of the pro-government youth organization BRSM (Belarusian Republican Youth Union), heads the FTUB. In early 2015, the Presidium of the Council of the FTU adopted a resolution establishing new posts in each region and district, which, according to independent experts, should play the role of ‘trade-union ideologists’.
The main role of the Trade Union Federation in Belarus is to control employees, ensure their integration and freeze protest activity among workers. De facto, official trade unions do not respond to significant deterioration of workers’ situation, including delays of wage payments, underemployment, reduced working hours and mass layoffs. Quite the opposite, the FTUB leadership uses the state’s arguments to explain the ongoing crisis by external factors. In addition, they call for support for the government, i.e., not to raise claims vis-à-vis management at enterprises.
According to Mr Orda, the FTUB leadership was ready to perform the role of an agent of the state in the labour movement and defend public interest. In particular, he said, “When the state had enough money, it never spared it, but, sometimes, we need to understand that we are all in the same boat, that we should support the state too. If you start protesting and shouting, nothing will come out of it. Today, we all have to work hard”.
Today the FTUB unites circa 90% of the economically active population in Belarus – about 4 million people. However, recently, the share of workers employed in the private sector has increased. The authorities therefore seek to create trade unions at private companies in order to have additional control mechanisms over the private sector.
In addition, the state is attempting to develop trade unions at private enterprises in order to create a positive background for negotiations with the International Labour Organization to lift restrictions previously imposed on Belarus. The ILO launched an investigation into violations of trade union rights in Belarus in 2003, which led to Belarus’ exclusion from the EU’s General System of Preferences in 2007. Amid shrinking exports to Russia, Belarus attaches greater importance to returning to the EU system of preferences.
The government will support greater influence of the pro-governmental trade unions at private enterprises; however, will continue to create obstacles for independent trade unions.
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.