MINSK -- Despite a five-year modernization program, Belarus's wood-processing industry just can't hang onto its skilled workers.
Promises of higher wages and more attractive working conditions aren't doing the trick as workers continue to seek more lucrative employment in neighboring Russia.
So President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has come up with a different idea: forced labor.
"A decree is being prepared that says that until the end of the planned modernization and reconstruction of [wood-processing] enterprises [in 2015], workers are forbidden from quitting their jobs," Lukashenka announced during a visit to the Barysaudrev wood-processing plant in Barysau, a bleak industrial city about 40 kilometers northeast of Minsk, on November 30. "Workers cannot quit their jobs without the agreement and permission of the management of the enterprise."
He added that workers who left their jobs despite the warning would be sentenced to compulsory labor and returned to the production line.
The presidential decree
codifying the threat was issued on December 7.
Lukashenka's move has struck a nerve in a country that hasn't forgotten its centuries-long history of serfdom.
"The only novelty here from the legal standpoint is the concept of forced employment, which is completely illegal," Syarhey Antusevich, deputy chairman of the Belarus Congress of Democratic Labor Unions, said. "I think that maybe the leader of the country just went off on a tangent, as he is sometimes prone to do, and decided to solve some serious, real problems in this way."
Antusevich noted, however, that the formal legal protections for workers in Belarus -- including those forbidding forced labor -- might not mean much.
"Things aren't that simple," Antusevich said. "The idea of forced employment is unacceptable and there are laws against it. On the other hand, we all know that in our country the law takes a backseat to the backroom instructions that control our courts, our prosecutor's office, and so on."
Belarus's move to compulsory labor has raised alarm bells abroad as well.
Stephen Benedict, the director of human and trade union rights at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in Brussels, said Lukashenka's proposal violates the conventions of the UN's International Labor Organization (ILO), of which Belarus is a member.
"We think this is a direct and absolute violation of the most fundamental principles and rights of workers," Benedict said. "There are ILO conventions that very clearly lay these rights out, and Mr. Lukashenka is completely denying these rights and ignoring the advice that he has repeatedly received [from international organizations]."
The European Commission, which manages the European Union's Eastern Partnership program that includes Belarus and other former Soviet countries, declined to comment to RFE/RL, saying it was studying Lukashenka's initiative.
Even before Lukashenka's decree was signed, workers at Barysaudrev were already said to have been prevented from quitting their jobs.
Wages at Barysaudrev average around $150 a month, but Lukashenka pledged to raise them to $400-$500 in 2013, which is approximately what wood-processing workers might hope to earn in neighboring Russia. Lukashenka also said wages in the sector would rise to $1,000 a month after the industry's modernization plan is completed in 2015.
Labor unions in Belarus have said they plan to send a formal complaint to the ILO.
And although the ILO declined to comment specifically on Lukashenka's Barysau initiative, it has long criticized Belarus for alleged violations of labor rights.
In November, the ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association issued yet another report
complaining of Minsk's "lack of cooperation" on labor-rights issues.
The ILO report cited Belarus's failure to investigate numerous cases in which workers were allegedly prevented from engaging in labor actions or were blocked "from the assistance which might be provided by international organizations in order to carry out activities, including strikes." It also noted Minsk's failure to "implement the recommendations made by the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers."
The ITUC's Benedict said that after Belarusian labor groups file a complaint with the ILO, the organization will review the case and can take action against Minsk.
"In due course...[Lukashenka's] government will be asked again to justify what they are doing," Benedict said, "and at some point there are some additional steps that can be taken through the International Labor Organization to exert additional pressure, up to and including economic sanctions. And that seems to be what he is looking for."
In addition, Benedict said the ITUC and its affiliates around the world could take action against Minsk. He also called on the European Union to "reconsider" its relations with Minsk if Lukashenka proceeded with compulsory labor.
Rough Around The Edges
Lukashenka's compulsory-labor initiative is one signal of his desperation over the slow progress of attempts to modernize an important export industry. The wood-processing sector comprises nine state-owned factories employing about 13,000 workers. At least 2,000 more workers are involved in the industry's ongoing reconstruction efforts and likely will be affected by Lukashenka's decree.
In 2007, the government allocated credits of more than 500 million euros ($660 million) to the sector for modernization. In 2010, it added a further 180 million euros. However, in his remarks in Barysau, Lukashenka said the efforts had all but collapsed. He said the program had been "dead" for the last "two or three years" and that purchased equipment was gathering dust in crates.
Lukashenka added that in the near future he plans to visit similar wood-processing plants in Vitebsk and Mahilyou, where "no one will be forgiven and all personnel questions will be settled." He added ominously, but vaguely, that "we might lose half the government there."
The problems in the wood-processing industry are just part of the overall picture of Belarus's failing Soviet-style economy. Belarus has seen rampant inflation and currency devaluations this year and has become increasingly dependent on loans from Moscow.
At the end of November, Lukashenka declared 2013
to be "The Year of Frugality" in Belarus. Among other goals, the initiative aims to enhance "economic security" through "raising labor productivity" and "the rational use of resources."
"The measures outlined by the Year of Frugality will be aimed at raising the frugality awareness of every person, encouraging frugal attitudes in and out of their workstations," the decree states.
RFE/RL correspondent Rikard Jozwiak contributed to this report from Brussels