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The four Belarusian participants were: one member of the Free Trade Union of Metal Workers (SPM); one member of the Independent Trade Union of Miners (NPG); one member of the Belarusian Free Trade Union (SPB), one representative of the BKDP (federation level). All belong to the BKDP. They work respectively in an electro-technical factory, in mining, and in an engineering factory. The fourth person works for the BKDP.
The BKDP (Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, a trade union federation with around 10,000 members) operates in a context where all citizens and organizations striving for freedom and independence face repression by the authoritarian regime. Bureaucratic rules make it difficult to establish unions, organize activities and print materials to distribute.
Despite intimidation, the regime failed to destroy the independent unions. In June 2007, the EU put restrictions on Belarus trade preferences due to violations of trade union rights. The effects of the economic crisis, the privatization of companies and the devaluation of the ruble because of the rapidly declining oil prices lead to a growing resistance from the population and a call for change.
People begin to express their discontent and to come together to organize. Also at workplaces (during breaks) “forbidden topics” are discussed, including the situation in the factory and the country.
Data on youth and trade unions in Belarus
The membership is growing steadily and BKDP’s legitimacy among the population of Belarus is increasing. This is partly due to the fact that the BKDP is not profiling itself as a political organization but is purely concerned with defending the (basic) interests of workers. BKDP has been able to bring its membership grow, creating a position in key firms in the economy (as in the kalium mines, and the largest oil refinery) and partly to stay out of range of the regime. Attracting new young members and strengthening the knowledge and skills and organization of existing young members is one of the main goals in BKDP Strategy 2008-2012. Before, there were also alliances with political youth organizations which support BKDP in recruiting new young members among sectors and companies where the BKDP is not yet present.
BKDP has worked to empower youth and strengthening a youth structure within the BKDP. At an international summer camp, young leaders were introduced to new ways of organizing. They have exchanged experiences with colleagues from other sectors and regions and from Netherlands. These kind of exchanges are extremely important in a context such as Belarus, where unions are organized mainly at company level and there is little contact with others. After the camp, the young people organized local level trainings and information events which led to an increasing number of young trade unionists, an active attitude of young members within the unions and the creation of an official youth committee in January 2010 (6 members, from every union 1). This committee has a flexible structure and aim for 2010 is therefore to clearly identify what are the interests of young members, and formulate activities and policy for young people. With the official election of this committee the youth section became an official part of the BKDP. A challenge for this year is to increase the participation of committee members in decision making processes of the unions and to increase the legitimacy of the committee under the (old) leaders.
How to strengthen independent trade unions
In Belarus, the government is the main employer. Most of the enterprises in Belarus are state-owned.
There is a harsh legal environment for trade unions, due to two main factors:
1. Registration of trade union organizations is extremely difficult:
The minimum membership requirement is prohibitively high, and a letter from the employer confirming the address of the union is often needed.
2. The government attempts to weaken trade unions right to organize strikes and other actions:
A strike must be announced in advance; the President of Belarus can cancel or suspend it;
permission from local authorities is needed for demonstrations or other street actions.
Fixed term contracts for workers:
The employer is given the right to conclude short-term contracts (1 year) with all workers.
The conclusions of these contracts is at the employers choice. The contract can simply not be renewed by employer.
Pressure on trade union members and activists:
The crisis appeared to be an excuse for discrimination on trade union membership. Many workers are forced to take a leave or to work part time. Young people are the vulnerable group.
Anti union policies bring the loss of EU:
The decision of the EU to withdraw Belarus’ benefits in 2008 was the culmination of years of monitoring violations of trade union rights and government reluctance to follow ILO recommendations.
Competition of trade unions:
There is competition between on the one hand the “traditional” Federation of trade unions of Belarus (FPB), an organization with close ties to authorities and “loyal” to the government and employer and on the other hand the independent trade unions.
Independent trade unions need to get stronger. This implies strong membership and commitment.
Considering the context, the principal questions for the Belarusians are:
– How can we overcome the fear of repressions of workers to organize workers? This has to do a lot with the strategies of trade unions.
What are the arguments to convince young workers to become a trade union member in the first place and to join your trade union in the second place?