Forced labour in Belarus will force regime change


The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) recently published a report on the situation in Belarus, looking at the social, economic, labour and trade union rights in a country known as “Europe’s last dictatorship”.

One of the most damning revelations in the report is the fact that the government forces large sections of the population to work without pay, in sectors ranging from agriculture to construction.

For the Belaruski Kongress Demokraticheskih Profsouzov (BKDP, or the Belarus Congress of Democratic Trade Unions), that the FIDH has investigated the social, economic, and labour conditions of Belarusian workers is a significant development.

The report will become an important tool to exert pressure on the authoritarian Belarusian regime, whose disdain for human rights – be it freedom of speech, freedom of association or free and fair elections – has become notorious.

It also brands the FIDH as an important partner for the BKDP.

Belarusian officials don’t like to be criticised over labour, social, and economic violations, for they believe the state is doing a great job in securing rights for its citizens.

But the FIDH report provides in-depth analysis of the difficult situation in Belarus, as well as concrete facts to support its conclusions, tracing the evolution of the government’s authoritarianism in a compelling manner.


Decree No.29

As far back as 1999, President Lukashenko issued Decree No. 29, ordering employers to transfer all workers to fixed-term labour contracts: a first in recorded labour history.

The decree, in fact, nullified the labour code’s norm prohibiting the conclusion of temporary contracts with any person whose job was of a permanent nature.

It also clashed with one of the main postulates forming the basis of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) actions, namely the struggle for universal permanent employment.

Decree No. 29 was so reprehensible that it sparked massive workers and trade unions protests.

At that time, the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FTUB), the country’s largest labour association, was relatively autonomous and was able to unite protests and organise a series of impressive anti-decree demonstrations in Minsk, the national capital, and other major industrial cities.

Tens of thousands of workers took to the streets and effectively stalled the enactment of Decree No.29 by the ruling regime.

However, subsequent events confirmed a pattern that is common to all authoritarian governments: they start perceiving independent workers’ organisations as the most dangerous threat, and begin using the state’s repressive apparatus to crush them.

Belarus was no exception to the rule. In 2002, following years of constant pressure, the FTUB was put under government control and, between 2003 and 2004, nearly 90 per cent of all the country’s workers were transferred to fixed-term labour contracts.

Brutal choice

The BKDP, just like the FIDH experts, believes that the complete transfer of the absolute majority of Belarusian employees to temporary contracts contains elements of forced labour.

This is supported by the fact that a person working under temporary employment conditions cannot quit his/her job during the term of the contract, even if that person finds a more attractive and suitable job.

About a month ago, President Lukashenko instructed the state-run trade unions under the umbrella of FTUB to transfer all people employed in the national economy, without exception, to this form of employment.

Since 98 per cent of all workers are members of the FTUB (mostly through coercion) one can easily state that a seemingly civilised form of employment like fixed-term contracts actually translates into forced labour in Belarus.

The system of temporary contracts has been directly transposed from the areas of economy and labour relations to the area of politics, becoming an ideological tool that is used to influence workers.

Through it, the authorities keep Belarusian workers on a short leash, manipulate them, and get rid of those who are seen as free-thinking, disloyal, and unreliable elements.

Among the latter, you will find first and foremost members of BKDP and its affiliates.

Our comrades are faced with a brutal choice: their independent union or their job.

We were not surprised when the ruling regime further aggravated the situation a year ago, on 7 December, 2012, with another presidential decree prohibiting the resignation of workers in the wood-processing industry.

Hence, forced labour in the country is not only de facto, but de jure as well.

What can be expected in the future from a regime that consistently intensifies its totalitarian rule?

One need not guess. We can only stress that by making workers’ lives harder, the regime has achieved nothing; absolutely nothing has changed in the national economy.

The introduction of forced labour has never been known to contribute to higher productivity and efficiency.

It is one of the reasons behind the serious deterioration of the social and economic situation in Belarus.

But having resorted to forced labour, to modern-day serfdom, the ruling political regime in Belarus, has chosen a sure path to bringing its own end closer.