Made in Belarus. By the Chinese
In the first six months of 2016, according to the Ministry of Interior 4,076 Chinese labour migrants entered Belarus. They now outnumber all other nationalities, including Ukrainians, who peaked at 3,334.
The Belarusian government maintains a firm grip on the labour market, and strictly regulates the number of work permits available to foreigners.
While Belarus attempts to re-engage with the West after the removal of sanctions and Russian investments continue to dwindle, Chinese investors are capitalising on Belarusian projects.
More and more Chinese workers are appearing in the streets of Minsk and other cities. Belarusians wonder what brings them here, what jobs they have, and most importantly, whether they are staying or moving on.
Unlike Europe, Belarus has thus far been spared the influx of refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East. However, as the number of jobs decreases, and Belarusians turn elsewhere in search of employment, they find themselves competing with imported labour as well.
Chinese Labour Migration in Numbers
According to the Ministry of the Interior, in 2015 Belarus admitted almost 32,000 workers. Among them almost half, or 14,000 people, came from war-torn neighbouring Ukraine, and another 7,225 from China. In 2016, as the situation in Eastern Ukraine stabilised to a certain degree, the number of Ukrainian workers decreased, while the Chinese labour force presence increased.
Data from the Ministry of the Interior also informs us that the majority among the 4,076 labour migrants works manual jobs. Only 888 among them are “trained specialists” according to the Ministry’s definition, and another 57 hold managerial position. 43 found employment in the service industry. Apparently, there is a demand for foreign non-skilled labour force in the Belarusian market.
This may come as a surprise to local Belarusian workers. Many have been struggling to find employment in Belarus, as the number of job cuts in industry rose throughout 2015 and 2016 due to the ongoing economic crises in Belarus and Russia. As Belarusians encounter more and more Chinese workers in the streets of Minsk and other cities, they might find themselves wondering what jobs they have, and which industries they work for.
According to a recent interview published by the official news agency belta.by during the president's visit to the Mahileu Lift Plant in July 2016, President Lukashenka remarked that Belarusian workers should be more proactive and flexible in looking for jobs, “If there is no work in Mahileu, then there should be some in Babruisk, Minsk, Hrodna, Svetlagorsk, or Dobrush.” Belarusian workers now face not only internal, but external competition as well.
Chinese Labour Migration in Faces and Stories
The sleepy provincial town of Dobrush, home to 18,000 residents, saw a sudden increase in population when local authorities approved the construction of a cardboard factory in 2015. The Chinese investor and main contractor imported 1,000 Chinese workers, a sizable addition to the existing population. They certainly stand out among the rest of the native Dobrush population.
Their presence might have remained unnoticed had a number of Chinese workers not protested. They accused their bosses of mistreatment and marched to Homyel (about 30 km) demanding justice. The situation was allegedly resolved through negotiation but according to many sources, including Radio Liberty in Belarus, many Belarusians felt impressed by their courage and sympathised with the Chinese workers as they insisted on fair pay.
Most Chinese workers come for a short span of time, work on construction sites in Belarus, and head back home. The case of the Chinese workers in Dobrush suggests that many of them are exploited and abused by their Chinese employers. Lack of transparency and oversight on the Belarusian side jeopardises their status and labour rights.
But some stay. And to a certain degree, they successfully integrate into otherwise very homogenous Belarusian society. According to the 2009 National Census, almost 84% of people in Belarus identify as Belarusians, followed by another 13% of Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians. In other words Belarus is 97% white.
Wan Syaomun has lived in Belarus since 1999. According to Deutsche Welle she came to study at a Belarusian university when she was 17, later got married, and stayed. Belarus became home. She now owns a translation agency. Her story amplifies the lack of transparency and integration for short-term labour migrants from China.
Short-term Manual Labour Migrants
Belarus attracts short-term manual labour migrants from China, Ukraine and Turkey. And although labour is cheap in Belarus, foreign investors prefer to bring their own labour. One of the reasons lies precisely in the comparative ease of controlling foreigners. For now it seems that Belarus has no competitive advantages in attracting and retaining high-skilled foreign labour. Some experts say that it should instead focus on retaining its own promising individuals who are keen to emigrate.
According to data from the Ministry of the Interior, for every Belarusian leaving the country in search of employment abroad, six foreigners enter the country securing jobs. This 1 to 6 ratio stems from official statistics, which reflect only those Belarusians who chose to provide a signed contract to the Ministry of the Interior before leaving to work abroad.
According to Ejednevnik.by, a Belarusian news outlet, this data distorts the real picture and the true ratio should be 3 to 1 in reverse. Other estimates suggest that around 100,000 Belarusians leave the country seeking employment abroad, mostly in Russia, and only around 30,000 migrant workers enter Belarus annually. The outflow of labour force from Belarus could deplete the national talent pool.
Belarus failed to come up with reliable ways of retaining local talent, wealthy Belarusians send their children to study and stay on in Western Europe or North America. Read more
On the other hand, in times of economic crisis, the remittances wired by Belarusians working abroad to their families have become a strong stabilisation factor for private households as well as the national economy. According to the World Bank such remittances contributed 2% to the Belarusian GDP in 2014.
As Belarus failed to come up with reliable ways of retaining local talent, many wealthy Belarusians choose to send their children to study abroad, and encourage them to find ways to stay on in Western Europe or North America. Meanwhile, the Belarusian government seems to have focused on regulating the inflow of foreign labour force by adhering to a non-transparent system of labour permits granted to chosen investors, mostly from China and Turkey.
This also places Belarus into a grey zone when it comes to labour code regulations. If investors do not hold up their end of an agreement with imported workers, Belarus has little to no leverage with them. While the strategy of importing temporary labour force may be a short-term solution to attract foreign investments, in the long term Belarus should identify more sustainable and modern ways of regulating its labour force markets.
Belarusian parliamentary elections: does everybody win?
On 11 September 2016 Belarus held elections to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly. In spite of the relatively insignificant role of the parliament in the Belarusian political system, these elections seem particularly important given the international situation and current economic crisis in Belarus.
Many experts expected deeper democratisation during the electoral campaign, such as introducing the OSCE’s recommendations into legislation, as well as including several representatives from the opposition into the parliament. According to experts’ views, such steps would demonstrate the authorities’ willingness to continue their dialogue with the West and would guarantee further loans from the IMF.
However, the actual results appeared to be much more moderate than experts had expected.
Authorities Sing the Same Old Song
One needs to be a very attentive analyst in order to find any significant difference between the current elections and previous electoral campaigns. The authorities have certainly introduced a few of minor changes into the legislation to demonstrate their willingness to cooperate with the OSCE and the West in general. Simultaneously, they have launched an information campaign to demonstrate their inability at a constitutional level to implement the OSCE's main recommendations.
As a result, all the flaws of the Belarusian electoral system, such as abuses during early voting, strong administrative support for certain candidates, and a lack of control during votes counting have remained untouched.
96% of the candidates from ‘Nasha Niva’s list became MPs Read more
Naturally, both international and domestic independent observers have called the results of the elections into question. Two month ago 'Nasha Niva', an opposition newspaper, published a forecast of the future members of parliament. The journalists based their assumption not on the candidates’ programmes or on sociological surveys but on the candidates’ relations with the authorities. As a result, 96% of the candidates from ‘Nasha Niva’s list became MPs.
Many experts consider early voting to be one of the main indicators of fraud during electoral campaigns in Belarus. The 2016 campaign has not been an exception – according to official data, early voting amounted for 31,29% of votes compared to 26% during the previous parliamentary elections in 2012 and to 36,05% during the presidential elections in 2015.
Since in 2006 early voting amounted to 31,3% of the vote, one one would need to be quite an optimist to find any liberalisation in this practise during the current parliament elections. Only wide use of administrative resources could guarantee such high results.
When the Results Become More Interesting than the Process
Nevertheless, there has been one surprise during these elections. Two apparently non-establishment candidates won a place in the parliament – a member of the oppositional United Civil Party (UCP), Hanna Kanapatskaya, and Aliona Anisim, a deputy head of the Belarusian Language Society. In this context, Dr. Andrey Kazakievich, one of the leading researchers of Belarusian elections, has stated that for the first time since 2000 the results of the current elections appear to be more interesting than the campaign itself.
Some experts consider the two non-governmental MPs to be a sensational result of these elections Read more
Some experts consider the two non-governmental MPs to be a sensational result of these elections and speculate on the possible changes in the parliament’s future activities. Anyone acquainted with Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s personal attitude to the very idea of non pro-governmental MPs understands the importance of this result.
During the previous electoral campaign numerous high-level officials in Belarus, including secretary of the Central Commission on Elections Mikalai Lazavik, made statements about the possibility of a few opposition MPs in the parliament. Such non-public discussion continued in the Presidential Administration.
Those officials and agencies, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who supported this idea, pointed out the inability of such a small group (up to 10 MPs) to have any influence on the decision-making process. At the same time, their mere presence in the parliament would send positive signals to the West. However, the president rejected all such proposals.
Games with the West
One can doubt whether these two MPs are even truly members of the opposition as such. Aliona Anisim has publicly rejected the "opposition" label. Her activities promoting the Belarusian language correspond to the authorities’ latest trend of soft belarusization.
Moreover, her presence could help Lukashenka in his negotiations with Moscow – the weak economic situation strengthens nationalistic forces, which could be potentially dangerous for Russia. The head of the Belarusian Language Society – the very well-known member of the opposition Aleh Trusau – was not elected.
The situation with Hanna Kanapatskaya is even more ambiguous. Her victory could force the UCP to recognise the results of the elections, which would mean internal legitimisation of Lukashenka's parliament. This makes conflicts inside the UCP, as well as among other opposition organisations, even more possible.
two MPs can do almost nothing within the strictly authoritarian Belarusian political system Read more
Despite the expectations of certain experts, two MPs can do almost nothing within the strictly authoritarian Belarusian political system. Moreover, serious doubts exist about Kanapatskaya’s and Anisim’s intent to truly represent the opposition in parliament, let alone disturb the authorities with non-approved initiatives.
Almost no one doubts that the West remains the main audience for these elections’ results. The OSCE, EU, and USA have already expressed doubts regarding the fairness of the Belarusian elections and have called for further reforms of electoral legislation. The artificial character of the campaign, as well copious fraud remain an open secret. However, given the continuing conflict with Russia and the balancing position of Belarus nobody wants to antagonise Lukashenka.
Rumours exist that such ‘liberalisation’ should become a precondition for a new loan from the IMF, as well as to improve relations with the EU and particularly the USA. However, even if these rumours have nothing in common with the reality, the authorities lose nothing.
Does Everybody Win?
Thus, it seems that everybody wins as a result of these elections. The president maintains a completely loyal parliament which has no actual influence on the decision-making process in the country.
The West achieves ‘apparent’ steps towards democratisation and liberalisation in Belarus. The opposition had its ‘minute of glory’ and once again demonstrated to everybody, including foreign partners, its inability to propose any serious political alternative. The intensive cleansing of the political field in the country since 2010 has born fruit for the authorities.
Thus, in terms of economic and social development of the country, the new Belarusian parliament is shaping up to become as efficient as the previous one, which initiated only three laws during its four year term. Its main function this time around will be reintegrating and legitimising the current Belarusian government to the world.