Forced Labor and the Pervasive Violation of Workers’ Rights in Belarus

10 December 2013 - Belarus authorities use of every means possible to feed the country’s economy to the detriment of its citizens’ economic and social rights. Internationally publicized as the «last European socialist paradise», Belarus forces large portions of its population to work, sometimes without pay and especially without the possibility to protest harsh or unfair conditions. These are the main observations of a report published today by FIDH and HRC Viasna.

Economic and working issues are quite sensitive in Belarus, especially in the current climate. Nearly every day, reports of students working on the construction of sports facilities dedicated to the international hockey championship, of conscripts going to harvests, of local authorities imposing unpaid work on the working population (a system called subbotnik) are related by the media.

The 80-page joint FIDH – HRC “Viasna” report, presented in Minsk on the occasion of International Human Rights Day, deals with the daily violations of workers’ rights in Belarus. Prepared following an international investigative mission in several regions of Belarus in June 2013, it highlights the wide use of forced labor and severe economic and social conditions which many citizens are confronted to.

Trade union rights are widely denied in Belarus. Obstacles to the establishment of independent trade unions are frequent and commonplace. Workers engaged in trade union activities are systematically repressed. Regulations have ubiquitously imposed the replacement of permanent labor agreements by short term contracts in various sectors, placing practically all workers in a precarious situation and threatening them with the non-renewal of their contract in the advent of a conflict with management or if they become members of an independent trade union. Another element which weakens workers’ abilities to defend their rights is the fact that basic wages are completed by bonuses, which can represent a significant increase of their monthly income. Bonuses, however, are not wages and can be arbitrarily eliminated at any time. More than 70% workers work under such conditions, with short term contracts not exceeding 3 years.

More generally, forced labor is widespread in Belarus, in various sectors and in various forms.

Presidential Decree No. 9 “On Additional Meas¬ures to Develop the Woodworking Industry” signed on December 7, 2012 makes it virtually impos¬sible for workers to terminate their contracts from their own initiative. During their military service, conscripts are obliged to carry out unpaid work that is unrelated to military activities. National, regional and local authorities regularly impose unpaid work on the already working population. Although in theory, participa¬tion is on a voluntary basis, in practice, there is little possibility to avoid it.

Another serious concern is the pervasive discrimination and stigma¬ti¬zation of people suffering from alcoholism or drug-dependency who are also subjected to forced labor. Forced labor is also imposed on prisoners in various types of detention faci¬lities. Prisoners cannot choose the work they perform, nor can they refuse to work without facing sanctions.

In the cases of children separated from their parents through administrative proceedings, their parents become ‘obligated persons’: they have the legal obligation to compensate the state financially for the fostering of their children. If they do not, civil courts sentence them to State assigned work, and witholds 70% of their wages.

These repressive methods are also used against most vulnerable groups of the population. Instead of ensuring that seriously ill people have an access to government health programs, the existing legislation severely punishes them, in spite of all international norms and proper means to rehabilitate alcoholics and drug addicts. The highly discriminating legal term " anti-social elements” is used to mention such people.

Under the Constitution, “specialized secondary and higher education is available to all in accordance with the abilities of each individual. Everyone can receive a free and proper education on a competitive basis in state educational institutions” (Article 49). Nonetheless, graduates from public education institutions, which are financed by the State, are obliged to work at the end of their studies for one or two years (depending on the institution they studied at) in a job assigned by the state. There is no recourse to oppose such assignments; the only way to avoid it is to reimburse all the expenses incurred by the government. Such expenses are calculated by the authorities, and due to the inflation, they generally amount to very high sums that people are unable to reimburse.

These repressive practices in the sphere of working relations have also led to discriminations against persons perceived as opponents of the regime.
On 29 November 2013, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights raised in its concluding observations the issue of forced labor and the violations of workers’ rights, after FIDH and HRC «Viasna» presented their joint report to the Committee. In particular, the Committee called on Belarus to review the current system of short-term contracts, abolish compulsory labor for alcoholics, drug addicts and «anti-social elements», ensure freedom of activity for trade unions and take some positive steps to ensure a real and effective social protection of the rights of the Belarusian population.

Read the full report here.

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