Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
Although the law provides for the rights of workers, except state security and military personnel, to form and join independent unions and to strike, it places a number of serious restrictions on the exercise of these rights. The law provides for the right to organize and bargain collectively but does not protect against antiunion discrimination. Workers who say they are fired for union activity have no explicit right to reinstatement or to challenge their dismissal in court, according to independent union activists.
The law provides for civil penalties in the form of fines for violations of the freedom of assembly or collective bargaining, which were not sufficient to deter violations. The government also did not enforce these penalties.
The government severely restricted independent unions. The government-controlled Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus is the largest union federation, claiming more than four million members. It largely resembled its Soviet predecessors and served as a control mechanism and distributor of benefits. The Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BCDTU), with four constituent unions and approximately 10,000 members of independent trade unions, was the largest independent union umbrella organization, but tight government control over registration requirements and public demonstrations made it difficult for the congress to organize, expand, and conduct strikes.
The government did not respect freedom of association and collective bargaining. Prohibitive registration requirements that any new independent union have a large membership and cooperation from the employer continued to present significant obstacles to union formation. Trade unions may be deleted from the register by a decision of the registrar, without any court procedure. The registrar may remove a trade union from the register if, following the issuance of a written warning to the trade union stating that the organization violates legislation or its own statutes, the violations are not eliminated within a month. Authorities continued to resist attempts by workers to leave the official union and join the independent one.
The legal requirements to conduct a strike are high. For example, strikes may only be held three or more months after dispute resolution between the union and employer has failed. The duration of the strike must be specified in advance. Additionally, a minimum number of workers must continue to work during the strike. Nevertheless, these requirements were largely irrelevant, since the unions that represented almost all workers were under government control. Government authorities and managers of state-owned enterprises routinely interfered with union activities and hindered workers’ efforts to bargain collectively, in some instances arbitrarily suspending collective bargaining agreements. Management and local authorities blocked worker attempts to organize strikes on many occasions by declaring them illegal. Union members who participated in unauthorized public demonstrations were subjected to arrest and detention. Due to a persistent atmosphere of repression and the fear of imprisonment, few public demonstrations took place during the year.
The Law on Mass Events also seriously limited demonstrations, rallies, and other public action, constraining the right of unions to organize and strike. No foreign assistance may be offered to trade unions for holding seminars, meetings, strikes, pickets, etc., or for “propaganda activities” aimed at their own members, without authorities’ permission.
Government efforts to suppress independent unions included frequent refusals to extend employment contracts for members of independent unions and refusals to register independent unions. According to BCDTU leader Alyaksandr Yarashuk, the government had not approved establishment of new independent unions since a 1999 decree requiring trade unions to register with the government but on January 15, it approved the third registration application of a branch of the independent trade union of miners, chemical, oil refinery, energy, transport, construction industries and other workers in Salihorsk. Registration followed restructuring of the state-owned potash fertilizer producer Belaruskali, which resulted in establishment of a number of separate subsidiaries, including Remmantazhstroi, where 400 workers wanted to keep their membership in the independent trade union. Authorities routinely fired workers who were deemed “natural leaders” or who involved themselves in NGOs or opposition political activities.
In August 2018 a Minsk district court convicted independent Radio and Electronics Trade Union chairman Genadz Fedynich and chief accountant Ihar Komlik for allegedly evading taxes in 2011 and sentenced the two to four years of house arrest. The court also banned the trade unionists from holding any administrative positions for five years. Protesters outside the courthouse were detained while protesting the trial. In November 2018 the Minsk city court dismissed their appeal. A November 2019 presidential amnesty law reduced the sentences of both Fedynich and Komlik by a year.
On May 10, Fedynich reported that the Penitentiary Inspectorate eased the conditions of his four-year restricted freedom sentence. Under the original house arrest order, Fedynich was required be at home from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. and was prohibited from leaving his residence on weekends and public holidays. Since May Fedynich has been allowed to visit health-care providers, post offices, stores, and other public facilities from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and also permitted to walk from his apartment to his mailbox inside the apartment building at any time. His curfew time was moved back from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Authorities refused Fedynich’s request to allow him to visit a church and help his ailing relatives with housework on weekends.
The government requires state employees, including employees of state-owned enterprises, who constituted approximately 70 percent of the workforce, to sign short-term work contracts. Although such contracts may have terms of up to five years, most expired after one year, which gave the government the ability to fire employees by declining to renew their contracts. Many members of independent unions, political parties, and civil society groups lost their jobs because of this practice. A government edict provides the possibility for employers to sign open-ended work contracts with an employee only after five years of good conduct and performance by the employee.
Opposition political party members and democratic activists sometimes had difficulty finding work due to government pressure on employers.
In 2014 the president issued Decree No. 5 On Strengthening the Requirements for Managers and Employees of Organizations, which the authorities stated was aimed at rooting out “mismanagement,” strengthening discipline, and preventing the hiring of dishonest managers in new positions. Among other subjects under the new decree, managers may reduce payment of employee bonuses (which often comprised a large portion of salaries) and workers may be fired more easily. An independent trade union lawyer told the press that workers have fewer rights under the new law.