Belarus to tighten control over private companies through state-controlled trade unions

April 22, 2016 19:14

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. 

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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.