Belarusians Forced to Work on Weekends
At 10 am last Saturday an official "subbotnik" began for millions of Belarusians. The word "subbotnik" comes from the Russian "subbota" and means a Saturday of unpaid work for community needs. Subbotniks trace their history back to 1919 when Russian Bolsheviks needed to mobilise workers to rebuild the country after the Civil War but were unable to pay them.
Today Belarus has no civil war but the authorities use unpaid labour on a regular basis. The official Belarusian propaganda is loud and proud that people contribute to public projects without being paid. But legal experts and human rights activists are unimpressed. They call subbotniks forced labour which is prohibited by Belarusian and international law.
This month the official news agency Belta announced that as a part of the subbotnik campaign it will be necessary to prepare for the coming winter, fix the roads, refurbish yards, and make residential houses warmer. Using various administrative measures the state hopes to make millions of Belarusians work without paying them. Last April over three million people participated in subbotniks all over Belarus.
When the subbotnik day comes, instead of resting on Saturday, employees have to perform their normal work duties or other tasks such as cleaning the streets. Although their salaries are calculated they do not get any money. All earnings are transferred to local executive authorities. They use these funds for various public projects such as building a giant library in Minsk, a new World War II museum or even a nuclear power plant.
The idea of voluntary work may sound noble, but very few are eager to sacrifice their day off and work for free. Since 2003 official regulations related to subbotniks specify that the work should be voluntary. In practice, most people have no choice whether to perform the "voluntary" work or to stay home. Employers, usually state-owned enterprises, order employees to work on Saturdays without even trying to package it as a recommendation.
In some cases employers provide specific sanctions for failure to volunteer. For instance, on 25 June 2011 management of the state enterprise Mogilevenergo ordered its employees to "volunteer" to clean the streets. Employees had been also warned that non-participation in the cleanup activities would be treated as truancy. The money earned in that particular subbotnik was earmarked to build the first Belarusian nuclear plant.
Belarusian authorities also happily embraced another Soviet tradition – unpaid agricultural works. At least once a year they request students from state universities and sometimes school children to perform agricultural works for a symbolic payment or no payment at all. Otherwise the students may be threatened with losing their places in subsidised dormitories or may face problems during their examination sessions. Belarusian weekly Nasha Niva reported that last month even eleven-year old school children were taken to collect potatoes during their study time.
Many legal experts think that these subbotniks and agricultural works constitute forced labour. The work is unpaid and there is usually a sanction for failure to volunteer. The International Labour Organisation regards prohibition of forced and child labour as a cornerstone of international labour law. The Belarusian Labour Code also prohibits forced labour and working on days off without an employee's written consent. It is not permitted under Belarusian law to request performance of works not specified in labour contracts such as cleaning the streets. But when courts are not independent these rules remain dead letters.
Neither Belarusian trade unions nor the international community can do much to influence the Belarusian authorities. In 2006, the European Union even introduced economic sanctions for violation of freedom of association in Belarus and repression against independent trade unions. But these economic sanctions were quickly matched by additional economic subsidies from Russia and the campaign against unions continued.
The threat to subbotniks and other forms of forced labour may come from another direction. As the economic crisis deepens, Belarusian authorities are under increasing pressure to privatise state enterprises. Although they resist privatisation and try to delay it for as long as possible – significant chunks of property have already been sold. Once the majority of companies in Belarus are no longer state-owned, it may become more difficult for the authorities to make people work for free.
The People’s Assembly and Attacks Against Opposition Activists – Politics and Civil Society Digest
Last Saturday's Narodny Skhod (the People's Assembly) had been long planned as a major protest event in Belarus. Authorities warned and intimidated its organizers and prospective participants in all regions of the country well in advance. As a result of this pressure and adverse weather conditions, only around one thousand people appeared in Minsk and several hundred in other regions of Belarus. Other instances of pressure against opposition included attacks and in one instance a robbery of activists by plain clothed individuals.
Masked men attack opposition politician Ukhnaleu on his way to Minsk from Lithuania. On 1 October, masked men attacked Valery Ukhnalyow on a road shortly after midnight as the deputy chair of the “Spravedlivy Mir” (Just World) Belarusian Party of the Left was returning to Minsk from Lithuania by car with his daughter and associate Vatslaw Areshka. Masked men stole $12,000, bags, mobile phones, two laptop computers and the keys to Ukhnalyow’s home and car. Police appeared to be committed to undertake a thorough investigation.
Attempt to capture Anatol Liabedzka by plain-clothed men. The leader of United Civil Party was also attacked by people dressed in civilian clothing on 1 October. Several people twisted his arms and tried to push him into the car in the courtyard of the house where he lives. Intervention by his wife and neighbors allowed him not to be captured. Police were not interested in investigating the incident and instead questioned Liabedzka about his old passport, which allowed him to freely travel abroad.
Oleg Manaev detained by the police to keep out a briefing for diplomats. On 6 October, a founder of the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) Oleg Manaev was detained in Minsk by police officers. He was held by the police for about three hours. His detention, Oleg Manaev explains, was due to the desire of the authorities to disrupt his speech at a briefing to diplomats.
Uladzimir Neklaev and Nasta Palazhanka officially warned. Former presidential candidate Neklaev was officially warned for making a foreign trip last week despite being banned from leaving Belarus. Along with several other opposition politicians, Nyaklyayew stayed in Warsaw between September 27 and 30 to take part in a series of meetings with high-ranking foreign officials on the sidelines of the Eastern Partnership Summit. Palazhanka was warned about her activity in Belarus.
Court Fined Picket Participants in Central Minsk. On 3 October, the central district court of Minsk fined detainees participating in a picket at Peramoha Square in the amount of 10-30 base units (Br350 thousand – Br1.05 million). They were accused of administrative violations under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code of Belarus (violation of order or organization of mass action or picketing). Lawyer Tamara Sergei got the maximum penalty.
Utility Services Going up in Price in Belarus. In Belarus, housing and communal services rise in price from 1 October. For example, tariffs for electricity go 15% up, tariffs for thermal energy for heating and hot water – 3.2%, maintenance of residential buildings – 3%. The corresponding decree № 1300 was adopted by the Council of Ministers of Belarus on September 28.
Petrol Goes up in Price for Eighth Time this Year in Belarus. On 1 October, fuel retail prices go up by 5% in Belarus. It’s going to be the eighth price increase since the beginning of the year. The scheduled protest actions were not held.
Belarus Still Participating in Eastern Partnership. On 3 October, Foreign Minister of Belarus Syarhei Martynau said that Belarus will retain its part in the EU program Eastern Partnership: "We’ve not participated in the summit in Warsaw, but Belarus will continue participating in the Eastern Partnership."
Committee to Honor 4 Journalists for Courage. On 5 October the Committee to Protect Journalists said it has chosen four journalists for its 2011 International Press Freedom Awards in New York, an annual recognition of courageous journalism. Awarded journalists included Natalya Radina, of Charter 97 website in Belarus. The awards will be presented at the committee's annual awards ceremony in New York on 22 November.
Call for positions of coordinator and local consultants. The Office for Democratic Belarus (Brussels) announces a call for coordinator and local consultants to work in a joint initiative of the European Union and Belarus Clearing House. The initiative was established by the Office for Democratic Belarus (Brussels), in partnership with EuroBelarus, Forum Syd (Sweden) and Pact. It aims at strengthening the capacity of Belarusian NGOs, promoting their cooperation with the EU and its Member States, as well as improving communication and cooperation between the Belarusian CSOs, the EU, donors and international implementers.
Gay Pride in Minsk. Minsk Gay Pride-2011 will take place from 11- 23 October. The organizer is a human rights project "GayBelarus" and its chairman Sergei Androsenka.
Alexei Pikulik Elected BISS Academic Director. BISS completes its search for a new academic director. BISS’s new Academic Director is Alexei Pikulik, who previously worked for BISS as a senior analyst.
New project for youth. Youth Education Centre Fialta launched a project 'Catch the present'. Over nine months 25 young people will participate in trainings, master classes, as well as implementing their own ideas in various areas of life (culture, sports, literature, science, IT, entertainment, education, etc.).
Survey about people with disabilities. Under the survey conducted by IISEPS in September 2011, the Office of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has initiated a series of issues concerning people with disabilities, as well as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In particular, the data shows that there is no noticeable improvement in the attitude towards people with disabilities in Belarusian society.
The fourth call for proposals under the program "Meeting Place is a Dialogue." International NGO "Understanding" (“Ponimaniye”) together with the Foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" (Germany) announced a call for proposals. The program provides funds to organizations and institutions that create the conditions for realizing the potential of older people and establishing a productive dialogue between the generations.
Child Fund International calls for proposals aimed at preventing child abandonment and institutionalization of children. The competition is held under the program direction "Development of services targeted at the prevention of institutionalization of orphans in the community." The maximum amount of funding per project is $ 10 000.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.