The pressure on independent trade unions and discrimination against their members has never been as strong as it is now. Earlier in September, activists from the Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BITU) and members of the ITUC-affiliated Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) were arrested, detained and subjected to searches by the state security services. This continues the widespread repression against BKDP members that has intensified one year after Lukashenko’s flawed presidential election victory in August 2020. The 2021 ITUC Global Rights Index rates Belarus as one of ten worst countries for working people, with “no guarantee of rights”.
The independent trade unions were awarded the "Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights" this year for their fearless struggle for democracy and fundamental trade union rights in Europe's last dictatorship.
Early in August the authorities ordered the dissolution of the journalists’ union BAJ and arrested more than 20 democracy supporters. In addition, on the 14th of July, Nikolai Sharakh, chairperson of the Free Trade Union of Belarus, was detained for 72 hours and accused of criminal activities. Sharankh’s union is a member of the ITUC-affiliated BKDP union centre.
In September several local BITU union leaders and members have been arrested. BITU president Maksim Pazniakou was detained and later released with a fine. BITU and IndustriALL are also concerned that Ihar Povarau, sentenced to three years in prison for an attempted warning strike at BMZ in August 2020, has been kept in the solitary confinement for an unspecified period of time, which could severely harm his psychological and physical health.
The vast majority of workers are hired under limited labour contracts. According to BKDP, contracts with members of independent trade unions are not prolonged. Benefits apply only to members of state controlled trade unions. The situation is the same with promotion and higher qualifications. Workers have to make a choice: withdraw from the independent trade union or lose their jobs, better income, and career.
The regime is afraid of any action on the parts of the workers, their participation in industrial protests and strikes. The authorities search for documents, looking for the evidence of workers expressing their political attitudes and showing solidarity with the protesters during the events of last year. Workers are often persecuted simply for behaving with dignity and for showing human solidarity towards abused people. Some workers had nothing but to leave the country, and today the Belarusian authorities are seeking their extradition.
According to BKDP, the state controlled "Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus" talk with business representatives in a rude and harsh manner and demand the fulfillment of Aleksandr Lukashenko’s demand as soon as possible. However, despite threats from the top, the vast majority of companies and firms still have not formed their own trade unions.
ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said: “The news coming out of Belarus is horrifying. For too long the working people there have suffered under this corrupt regime that denies their fundamental labour rights and freedoms. Instead of implementing the reforms recommended by the clear and unequivocal judgements of the ILO, the government again turns to repression in an attempt to silence the voice of the independent trade union movement in the country.
She also expects to see further pressure from governments to force the Lukashenko regime to respect international labour standards, including the right to freedom of association and the right to strike.
Despite the complexity of the situation, the BKDP and affiliated independent trade unions are good at playing the long game. They have been in this condition for many years and have a strong belief that independent trade unions, no matter what repressive measures are applied to them, will manage to preserve themselves and adhere to their principles and values, including the principle of trade union and human solidarity.