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Belarus: Trade Unions Face Increasing Harassment

For trade unionists, there are few less hospitable spots in the world than Belarus. The Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, or ICFTU -- which represents 125 million workers on all five continents -- says that only Colombia scores lower in respecting the rights of labor activists. RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky reports on the plight of trade unionists in Belarus.

Prague, 12 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In its annual 2000 report on violations of trade-union rights, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) accuses Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of establishing total state control over trade unions. That, the report says, makes it impossible to form independent trade unions and for unions to carry on legitimate activities. The report also says that in Belarus trade unionists have been arrested for taking part in demonstrations or threatened with losing their jobs if they do not quit their unions.

The latest attack against Belarus trade unions came late last month (Sept 27), when state authorities closed the bank account of the Belarus Federation of Trade Unions, or BFTU, the country's largest labor umbrella organization. Union officials say authorities also threatened to arrest the federation's leader, Vladimir Hancharyk.

Several days later (Oct 2), more than 1,000 Belarus trade union leaders met at the BFTU's Minsk headquarters to express their support for the federation and protest the government's interference in labor's affairs.

The crackdown on the federation came just before this week's conference of the BFTU (Oct 10-11), which trade unionists say Lukashenka's government had actively sought to thwart. But the conference went ahead, and Vladimir Hancharyk was re-elected BFTU president.

Hancharyk told RFE/RL that despite the difficulties the government has created, unions still have a role to play in Belarus.

"We [unions] should develop as independent, normal organizations, and of course work together with the government in solving economic problems. Such cooperation cannot be avoided. And we should work to solve the usual problems that trade unions around the world are faced with -- we're no exception."

Hancharyk then set out those problems:

"The main task facing [our] trade unions is securing fair wages for labor, strengthening the unions -- such as the [Belarus] Independent Organization of Labor -- strengthening the financing of unions, and understanding who and what the unions represent. In coming years, those will be our main tasks."

But many unions complain Lukashenka has made their work impossible. Beginning in 1999, the Belarus leader issued a series of decrees that trade unionists say were intended to burden them with difficult requirements for legal registration. One such decree introduced limitations on the number of workers who could found a trade union. It also imposed new minimum membership quotas and expensive registration procedures, and gave authorities wide discretion to withhold registration.

The Belarus Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, or BKDP, says that when labor union bodies sought to re-register with the government, Belarus officials made it difficult for them to obtain confirmation of their legal address -- often workplaces or businesses. In some cases, the BKDP says, company managers refused to provide confirmation of the addresses of independent trade unions and later plant managers claimed the unions were illegal and tried to expel them.

The government has devised another tool to dissuade Belarusians from joining independent trade unions: short-term contracts. According to union leaders, these temporary contracts give managers at state enterprises an effective cudgel to get rid of troublesome workers.

According to the ICFTU in Brussels, the temporary contracts were introduced by a Lukashenka decree in July 1999. The decree allows new workers to be employed on individual temporary employment contracts for periods of at least one year. Under the contracts, they are no longer protected by collective agreements. Workers employed under longer-term contracts, who do enjoy collective protection, can be fired if they refuse to be transferred to temporary agreements. In addition, they are forbidden to leave their jobs during the duration of the short contracts.

Luc Demaret, a spokesman for the ICFTU, says Belarus trade unions have filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization, or ILO -- a UN-affiliated body -- that accuses Lukashenka of violating ILO trade-union covenants.

"The trade unions in Belarus have used the ILO procedure for complaint with the help of the ICFTU. So together with the unions there, we decided to launch a formal complaint against the government of Belarus on the basis of the violation of conventions that have been ratified by Belarus, which are the conventions on the freedom of association and on the right for trade unions to bargain collectively."

The Geneva-based ILO says it is sending a delegation to Minsk next week (Oct 18-20) on what it calls a "fact-finding mission." The delegation will be led by Finnish ILO Executive Director Kari Tapiola, but it's not clear with whom it will meet. For the moment, talks are scheduled only with Belarus Labor Minister Ivan Lyakh.

Although Lukashenka has in the past shown himself impervious to international criticism, Demaret says the ILO mission should bring further international pressure to bear on the Belarusian leader.

"It will be increasingly difficult for Mr. Lukashenka to explain his policy to his own people and to defend any of his policy -- let's say, any result he would achieve economically or socially. The country is in collapse and Lukashenk[a] will have extreme difficulty to explain why his country is not accepted in Europe; why projects that are badly needed in Belarus are being frozen. So there is a series of pressure [actions] which is increasing on the regime and will make this situation increasingly uncomfortable."

The ILO mission will also be visiting Belarus during what local trade unions are hoping will be a massive strike protest, scheduled for a week from today (Oct 19). The strike is intended to underscore the repeated abuses of workers' rights by Lukashenka's government and the general climate of repression in Belarus.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.