Belarus: Authorities target independent trade unions to root out dissent

The Belarusian authorities are ruthlessly targeting independent trade unions and trampling on labour rights as part of their brutal crackdown on the protest movement, Amnesty International said today. In a new briefing, the organization highlights the reprisals against independent trade unions and their members. These include unlawful dismissals, arrests and criminal prosecution of labour rights activists breaching the government’s international treaty obligations to respect freedom of association and the rights of workers to freely form and join trade unions.

“Belarus has retained distinctly Soviet features since the break-up of the USSR. This includes the total domination of the economy by the state, which remains the biggest national employer and seeks to exercise effective control over all trade unions. The state-run trade unions, which effectively lack any independence, act more like a branch of government than the protector of workers,” said Heather McGill, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Researcher.

“When mass protests started in August 2020 many workers responded by organizing strikes and walk-outs at state run enterprises. In many instances independent trade unions were formed when pro-government unions failed to support the workers, and these quickly became targets for government repression.”

The authorities have used every means available to prevent workers from joining the protest movement and setting up independent trade unions. This has included imposing threats, fines, dismissals, and finally, criminal prosecution of trade union members.

Vadzim Laptsik set up the founding committee of the branch of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union at the Belarusian Metallurgical Factory in Zhlobin, after the plant’s pro-government trade union withdrew its initial support for a strike on 17 August calling for President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s resignation.

Speaking to Amnesty International, Vadzim recounts the reasons why the pro-government trade union “betrayed” the strikers. “They [the pro-government trade unions] also hoped that things would change, but later the people with epaulettes arrived – the Ministry of Interior, the KGB – and explained to the [unions] how they should behave. How to save their skins.”

The independent trade union that Vadzim Laptsik chaired collapsed on 2 November, as the authorities arrested and criminally charged four of the eleven founding members. On 21 January, Vadzim Laptsik was dismissed from his job as a senior specialist at the factory and threatened with criminal prosecution, forcing him to leave Belarus.

“We call for international solidarity with Belarus’ trade union activists who are paying a high price for defending workers’ rights in their country,” said Heather McGill.