Amnesty International says Belarusian workers are facing reprisals in their attempts to set up independent labor unions amid pro-democracy protests that followed a presidential election last year that opposition leaders and the West say was rigged.
"Many people chose to express their peaceful opposition to the election results at their workplace, through industrial action. Some faced administrative detention, and some criminal prosecution for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly," the London-based human rights group said in a report published on April 28.
Realizing "how little support they had from official trade unions," protesting workers attempted to set up independent unions, but "in response they faced reprisals in the workplace," according to the report.
Belarus, where workers at state enterprises represent 90 percent of the working population, is a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and a state party to all fundamental ILO conventions.
The UN labor agency has repeatedly drawn attention to violations of the rights to freedom of assembly and association in the country, where there are two main trade union bodies: the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FTUB) and the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BCDTU).
The BCDTU unites independent trade unions such as the Belarusian Independent Union (BNP), and has a membership of 10,000.
FTUB, with 4 million members, is the successor to the Soviet Belarusian Republican Council of Trade Unions, and "it retains many of the characteristics of Soviet trade unions such as the participation of managers and government representatives…directly in the decision-making of trade union bodies."
In this environment, independent labor unions face "enormous challenges" in attempting to register, and their members are "subject to discrimination at the workplace," Amnesty International said.
In its report, titled Independent Unions In The Line Of Fire, the group cited a failed attempt by workers at the Belarusian Steel Factory in the eastern town Zhlobin, who in August 2020 started to hold strikes to put forward the demands that were being echoed throughout the country -- the resignation of authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the chair of the election commission, an end to the beating of peaceful protesters, and accountability for police brutality.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
After an August 17 strike during which access to the factory was blocked for three hours, the workers learned that a criminal investigation against them had been launched.
They formed an 11-member founding committee for a BNP branch with Vadzim Laptsik as chair, and in December 2020 they agreed with a local property developer that he would provide the union with premises for their legal address.
However, the property developer was later forced to withdraw his offer under pressure from the authorities. Without an address, the union could not register.
After that, members of the organizing committee were subject to retaliatory action.
In January, Laptsik was dismissed from his job without any warning, officially for absenteeism because he had visited the medical department of the factory without a pass.
He also received a notification that he was being investigated for preparing actions that "gravely violate public order," and left Belarus on January 24.
Four other members of the founding committee have been convicted and three are serving between 2 1/2- and three-year prison sentences on charges of participating or organizing "actions that gravely violate public order."
Opposition and public outrage over the disputed August 9 presidential election, in which incumbent Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory, has sparked continuous protests, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets demanding new elections be held.
More than 30,000 people have been detained under administrative legislation for taking part in demonstrations and "an increasing number of peaceful protesters are being prosecuted under criminal charges and sentenced to long prison sentences," according to Amnesty International, which said allegations of torture and other ill-treatment in detention were "widespread."
The "shocking" clampdown on dissent demonstrates "the deep-rooted and pervasive nature of government repression in Belarus," the watchdog said.
Lukashenka, who has run the country since 1994, has denied any wrongdoing with regard to the election and refuses to negotiate with the opposition on stepping down and holding new elections.