Belarusian Workers Leave the Official Trade Unions
Since the beginning of the new year the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus has unexpectedly appeared in the media on two occasions. Unlike in Western countries in present-day Belarus you do not hear much about trade unions. The Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus, also dubbed the ‘official’ trade union, has about 4 million members and thousands of regional, local and organization-based unions, but its role in public life is close to non-existant.
The first time the official trade union hit the headlines was on 3 January when more than 200 workers of the Republican Unitary Industrial Enterprise ‘Granit’ (located in Brest Oblast) decided to leave the ‘official’ trade union and to organize an independent alternative. Then on 9 January the Federation of Trade Unions unexpectedly joined (though, in a very cautious way) the critics of the government’s decision to triple the Base Rate. The Base Rate is an important rate to which certain other rates and payments are tied (for example, fines, fees and rates for property rent).
Both events demonstrate that the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus is a relic of the past that brings added value neither to its members nor to the government. It does not act beyond innocent declarations. Therefore, rather than wasting huge resources to no effect it would be more reasonable to simply disband the ‘official’ trade union.
The Story of Subjugation
The Federation of Trade Unions is one of the notorious institutions that Belarus inherited from the Soviet Union. In the first half of the 1990s Belarusian trade unions began to resemble those of Western countries. Set on a background of massive worker protests throughout the country a number of new vibrant unions were established (for example, the Confederation of Labor of Belarus, Free Trade Union and Independent Trade Union). The unions headed the protests against miserable salaries and falling living standards.
But after the victory of Aliaksandr Lukashenka in the 1994 presidential election the overall authoritarian wave gradually swept the strong and independent trade unions away. That was not an easy task for the newly elected president and his team. In 1995 a presidential decree suspended the work of the Free Trade Union. But under the pressure of international organizations and foreign states the government had to register the Free Trade Union again. Later, in order to paralyze independent workers’ unions the authorities started to ‘smoke out’ plant-based unions one by one.
As a result, already at the beginning of the 2000s the membership of the independent Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (about 20 thousand) was disproportionately low in comparison with the membership of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (more than 4 million). But it was not yet a victory for the government.
In 2001 the head of the Federation Uladzimir Hancharyk became the single opposition candidate to challenge Lukashenka in the presidential campaign. And only in 2002 the authorities managed to replace Hancharyk with their man Leanid Kozik and, thus, established total control over the Federation of Trade Unions. According to the Federation’s website, the number of its members today amounts to more than 90% of the working population in the country.
As regards the independent trade unions, their role was totally marginalized at the beginning of the 2000s. Members were forced to leave them and join the Federation of Trade Unions. The membership of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, the only association of 'unofficial' trade unions, dropped to a couple thousand. Today the Congress unites four organizations:
- Belarusian Independent Trade Union,
- Belarusian Free Trade Union,
- Free Metal Workers' Union,
- Belarusian Trade Union of Workers of Radio and Electronics Industry.
These unions are represented at about 30 plants and enterprises across the country.
Goals, Tasks And Possessions Of The 'Official' Federation
The main goals of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus, as stipulated in its official documents, are the following:
- coordination of the activities of trade unions aimed at the protection of labor, social and economic rights of the members and affiliated organizations;
- promotion of solidarity and unity within the trade union movement of Belarus;
- improvement and development of the social partnership system.
In order to reach its goals the Federation developed a rich program of activities. They include the initiation and development of various legal acts, participation in republican and regional employment programs, projects related to the treatment of workers and members of their families, and other social programs.
The ‘official’ trade union has significant real estate assets across the country that used to belong to its Soviet predecessor. It includes sports clubs and all sorts of sporting facilities, summer camps for children, resorts, hotels and other objects. Some of the property has been commercialized. And, as a result, a great deal of the Federation’s efforts is spent on property management rather than activities to fulfill its primary mission. i.e. to protect workers.
Last year marked by a severe financial crisis exposed the real place that the ‘official’ trade union occupies in Belarus. It turned out to be completely impotent to defend its members or even speak on their behalf as the crisis was unfolding and employees’ living standards plummeting. Interestingly, unlike the majority of trade unions in the world, on a couple of occasions (like on the 9 January) the Federation issued statements in support of businesses and employers. But it was done so cautiously and timidly that it cannot be given credit for an insightful pro-market stance.
This is, of course, no surprise. The leadership of the Federation is basically appointed by the government through a system of numerous levers and controls. And he who pays the piper calls the tune. Therefore, the leadership of the Federation is more concerned about the interests of the state than of its members. The ordinary members of the Federation can see this. And, as the case of the ‘Granit’ enterprise showed, they no longer seek help from the ‘official’ trade union. Instead, they look for independent alternatives.
Thus, in 2011 and at the beginning of 2012 the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus clearly demonstrated its inability to fulfill its statuary mission. Being silenced by the state, it does not serve the interests of its members. Moreover, it does not help the government to alleviate social tension because people no longer trust the 'official' unions. Therefore, it would be more reasonable for the authorities to stop wasting resources to support the ‘official’ trade unions and simply disband them.
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk
The “Real Belarus”: Travel Tips from a German Expat
At the beginning of the new year, Belarus made headlines in the Western press once again. The reporting on the new internet law showed that Belarus is a white stain on the European map for most people. This week the Toronto Star published an article called "Belarus: The North Korea of Europe". It’s those often misleading descriptions that most Westerners have in mind when going to Belarus for the first time.
Based on Western media reports, it is impossible to imagine what Belarus is actually like and how people live here. For this reason, Belarus Digest launches a new series of articles, written by a German living in Belarus. In several articles, we will try to paint a more realistic picture of life in “Europe’s last dictatorship” and describe events and everyday life from the perspective of a Western expat. So let's begin the journey.
If you plan to visit Belarus, you are probably a diplomat or business man on a mission, a backpacker or a German between 60 and 70 on an organized commemoration tour. Unless you drive, there are two principal ways to arrive in Belarus – by plane or by train.
Landing at Minsk-2 Airport: Welcome to the Potemkin Village!
Airport Minsk 2 will seem strangely deserted. There was National Airport Minsk 1 in the very middle of the capital, which was reserved for flights of the president and inner-Belarusian flights but it is no longer used. So Minsk 2 is the only major international airport in Belarus.
Upon landing you will probably be intimidated by customs officers and border guards in huge hats who never smile or try to pretend to speak anything other than Russian. You will need to buy a Belarusian insurance because the traveling insurance you bought in your home country will not be valid in Belarus no matter what the agent told you at home. When you have passed the passport and customs control, you will take a relieved breath and head towards Minsk.
Make sure to buy some Belarusian Roubles which you can't get in Western capitals. Bring small bank notes and a big purse – changing 10 Euros will bring you more than 100 000 roubles. There are no Belarusian coins, only paper money.
Take a taxi or marshrutka (a mini-bus) to the city. You will have a 42 km drive to think about where you have landed now. The highway connecting the international airport Minsk 2 to the city looks very modern and shows off the national companies and campaigns on glossy (English language!) road signs. Clearly this country wants to impress its foreign visitors from first sight.
However, you will understand quickly that this road as well as the impressive buildings you will see when entering Minsk are Potemkin villages. The facades are beautifully maintained and always freshly painted, but when you see them from the backside you understand that you have been fooled. Nevermind, Minsk is still a nice city.
Getting There by Train: Gradual Adaptation During an Overnight Trip
When you arrive by rail, you will probably take an overnight train from Berlin or Warsaw. Most likely you will feel like you are in one of the documentaries you saw on TV, describing trips on the Trans-Siberian railway titled “From Berlin to Vladivostok”. You will have to deal with a stewardess who speaks only Russian. That seems to be very intimidating, particularly when she shouts at you at your home railway station that she is no longer going to wait until you have put your belongings into the train as the train is already running late because of you.
You will then enter a compartment that you share with two or three fellow travelers. Most probably they will be Belarusians coming back from a visit to their children and grandchildren who immigrated to the West. Over the long trip (around 18 hours from Berlin) you will get to know them very well and agree to pretend some of the booze they bought is yours as they exceed the allowed amount. You will pass the border control in the very East of Poland and then in Brest. As always, border guards will not speak a word of English.
Then you will see how the wheels of a whole train are changed. Train tracks in Belarus (and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union) are wider than in the rest of Europe. One carriage will be lifted after another while you are actually on the train. It is an amazing experience.
When you enter Minsk after four more hours of rattling through forests and neat villages with railway buildings that are painted pink and blue and yellow you will hopefully be impressed.
The Minsk railway station is newly built and looks like a UFO landed on the railway square with its two towers. You will get out of the train and be caught up in the buzzing atmosphere: taxi drivers offering you a ride, people meeting their relatives that unload their luggage… Until some years ago, they were still playing a march for international trains arrived in Minsk. This honor is reserved for trains arriving from Moscow only.
Unless you know Minsk and its system of public transport well, treat yourself with a taxi ride to your final destination. It is not expensive, and when again in life will you have the possibility to be driven around a Soviet Union theme park sitting in a Lada with fake fur on the back seat?
Three Survival Tips for Your First Visit to Belarus
So, when traveling to Belarus for the first time, make sure you remember these three tips:
First, never be intimidated by an official unless you have done something illegal and there is a chance they know about it.
Second, never try to put on a seatbelt when sitting in the back back of a taxi. Even if you may find seatbelts, the taxi drivers will be seriously insulted and take it as a sign that you do not trust their driving skills.
Third, if you are not keen on reading newspapers and books in Belarusian or Russian for the duration of your stay, bring your reading materials in a language you understand. It is impossible to buy international newspapers in Belarus.