Before closing the period of Carlos Custer as secretary general of the WCL some other events should be reported. An important event, especially in the light of current events in Ukraine and Russia, was the WCL-ICFTU mission to Belarus in 1995. At that time, brave trade union leaders tried to establish an autonomous, democratic and independent trade union movement. In April 1995 for the first time a WCL mission visited Belarus in combination with a visit to the Ukrainian VOST. Already after a few months, the situation in Belarus around the new trade union movement, became critical because of a strike at Minsk Metro and the trolley bus company GOMIL, both public companies. The strike was held following a dispute over compliance with the Collective Bargaining Agreements. A purely trade union conflict.
President Lukashenko, until today in power, took sharp measures against the strikers. By decree 336 all activities of the new unions were banned until with the help of the still-powerful former Communist trade union confederation a new labor law would be adopted. Strikers were fired, threatened and intimidated, strikebreakers were employed, bank accounts of the company unions blocked and finally, a number of leaders arrested and put in prison among them President Gennady Bykov, one of the founders of the free trade union of Belarus and President Vladimir Makarchuk of the Metro Minsk company trade union.
|Gennady Bykov, the first president of the Belarus Congress of Democratic Unions SPB, speaking on the occasion of the 20 years existence of the SPB.|
The WCL delegation consisted of CNV staff member Marjon Oostveen for international affairs, ACV/CSC National Secretary Hervé Decuyper, Pol Buekenhout of the international service of the ACV/CSC, ACV/CSC interpreter Russian Joris Waterschoot and myself. We spoke with Gennady Bykov and other leaders in a modest office of the "Congress of Democratic Trade Unions of Belarus 'and' Free Trade Unions of Belarus" in Minsk. Trade union President Makarchuk of Metro Minsk was our guide during a visit to his company. In the cafeteria we had a conversation with some leaders of the company trade union.
Following the brutal repression of the trade union, Makarchuk asked the WCL by letter for international support and assistance. He urged to send as soon as possible a delegation representing as much as possible the whole international trade union movement with the aim to exert maximum pressure on the government. I decided to contact colleague Ana Oulatar of the ICFTU, responsible for Central and Eastern European affairs with the proposal for a joint mission WCL- ICFTU as proof of support and assistance to the strikers and the new democratic and independent unions. Such a joint mission would also be a signal for political leaders in other former communist countries that the WCL and ICFTU do everything possible to support the development of a free and independent trade union movement.
|The header of the Website of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, internationally affiliated to the ITUC.|
Anna Oulatar agreed with the proposal so we decided to send not only a joint delegation to Belarus, but also to submit a complaint to the ILO, and to draw attention to the violations of trade union rights through the European Trade Union Confederation, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Social and Economic Committee. Despite these agreements, the ICFTU choose dates for the mission unilaterally, without consulting the WCL. As a result of this Genady Bykov, President of the Free Trade Union of Belarus, was unable to attend the KGZE Conference to which he was invited for the first time. The KGZE Conference is an annual meeting of Christian-oriented trade unions from across Europe, which are held until today with the support of EZA and the Austrian trade union movement. This meant an opportunity lost to direct a large number of European unions firsthand to inform about events in Belarus. Apparently this kind of teasing is normal for a big brother like the ICFTU. I had already had my experiences. Shrug and move on, it seemed to me the best attitude. However, it was not the last time that such happened with this mission. For example, we had agreed that the ICFTU and WCL would donate the same amount of money, but at the end of the mission, the representative of the PSI gave extra money.
So we had to decide quickly whether it would still be a joint mission. The WCL delegation consisted of Bogdan Hossu, Vice-President of the WCL , President of the Romanian trade union Cartel Alfa and member of the Governing Body of the ILO, Andrzej Adamzcyk of the department for international affairs of the Polish NSZZ Solidarnosc, Joris Waterschoot of the international service department of the ACV/CSC and Russian translator and myself as confederal secretary of the WCL for Central and Eastern Europe. The ICFTU delegation consisted of Anna Oulatar, Policy Officer for Central and Eastern Europe of the ICFTU, Rudy Porter of the ICFTU office in Moscow, Allan Leather of the Public Services International PSI, Thomas Poese German DGB, Jerry Zilhoffer of the AFL-CIO and Tit Tamar PSI from Estonia.
|Vladimir Ivanovich Gontcharyk, |
President of the Belarus Trade Union Federation BTUF 1990-2001. The BTUF is affiliated with the Communist World Federation of Trade Unions WFTU
The mission began with a visit to the union leaders Makarchuk and Kanack of Metro Minsk. The strike was a response from the workers on the unilateral termination of the collective agreement by the management of Metro Minsk and the Minsk Gomil trolleybus company. Even the official trade union federation participated in the strike. When the government took draconian measures, including the dismissal of dozens of strikers, the official trade union, a member of the former Communist Trade Union Federation, ended its support for the strike. The free trade unions ended up being isolated. The strike action was interpreted by the authorities as a political strike.
Our visit to Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Sergeyevich Ling brought us nothing. We were told about legal procedures, that one has to respect the law and that the country is going through difficult times. Independent judges would judge whether the complaints of the strikers were admissible or not. Also the Attorney General Kapitan spoke only on formal and bureaucratic matters referring to procedures, remedies, laws and decrees.
By contrast, Labour Minister Alexander Sosnov spoke with more nuance about the case. He thought that not only the union and the strikers had acted illegally, but also employers. On the other side, he found that pay raise was not necessary because the subway workers earned twice as much as other employees. Employers made the mistake by not negotiating and not paying wages as provided for in the collective agreement. Most important was that he disagreed with the promulgation of Presidential Decree 336. He did not have much faith in the law which was still in the hands of the old former Communist garde, like the former Communist trade union federation. A few weeks after our departure, he was removed from office. Apparently President Lukashenko did not waste any time.
The conversation with President Gontcharik of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus, which informally was called the official trade union (it was supposed to have 2 million members but it should be noted that workers are automatically a member of the trade union and that their membership fees are withheld automatically), did not clarify the matter either. It started with his refusal to receive representatives of the Free Trade Unions together with us. We should have cancelled the meeting but the ICFTU delegation did not want. My impression was that Goncharov as usual for this kind of bureaucratic party officials went along with the authorities but that he was hiding behind a smokescreen of procedures, laws and ambivalent position papers, in short, a style not worthy of what a democratic and transparent leadership should be. I was disappointed in the way the ICFTU delegation acted. In my view they were much to soft with Gontcharik, even Andrey Adamcsyk of the Polish trade union Solidarnosc, that when necessary never had avoided any confrontation with the Communist authorities. I wondered what was going on?
Thanks to among others Bartho Pronk, member of the European Parliament, a resolution on Belarus was adopted by the European Parliament in September 1995 (12(c) B4-1248 and 1293/95)
“The European Parliament,
– having regard to the partnership and cooperation agreement between the European Union and its Member States, on the one hand, and the Republic of Belarus on the other hand, now before Parliament for assent, and in particular its Articles 2 and 4 thereof,
– having regard to the planned signature of the interim agreement by the council,
– having regard to internationally recognized labour standards, in particular ILO Conventions Nos. 87 and 88, which have been ratified by the Republic of Belarus,
A. whereas from 16 to 21 August 1995, workers of the Minsk Underground and trolleybus system went on strike to protest against the authorities' non-compliance with collective agreements,
B. whereas the authorities then arrested and detained several trade union leaders,including Vladimir Makarchuk and Nikolai Konakh, and whereas approximately 60 workers who participated in the strike have been dismissed following a court ruling that the strike was illegal,
C. having regard to the arrest of Gennady Bykov, President of the Free Trade Union of Belarus (FTUB) and one of the leaders of the Congress of democratic Trade Unions of Belarus, together with two of his collegues,
D. having regard to reports on the harsh conditions of their detention; whereas the Belarus President apparently ordered that those dismissed must find employment at a collective farm for two months and receive a favourable recommendation before being considered for further employment anywhere else,
E. whereas on 1 September 1995 the Belarus President's Decree 336 of 21 August 1995 was published, which suspends the activities of the Free Trade Union of Belarus and the Cell Union of Minsk Subway Workers and which establishes that activities of political parties, public organizations and trade unions taking part in strikes affecting enterprises mentioned in the list approved by the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus dated 28 March 1995, shall be terminated using the due process in law,
F. whereas the recent parliamentary elections in Belarus did not result in the establishment of a newly elected parliament; whereas there is therefore no democratically legitimised legal framework for ratifying legislation in Belarus,
G. whereas, according to the independent Belarus League for Human Rights, the detention of trade union leaders as well as the above-mentioned presidential decree should be considered a violation of article 35 of the Belarus Constitution; whereas a procedure was due to start on 10 October 1995 before the constitutional court of Belarus on the legality of presidential decrees and their confirmation by parliament,
H. whereas the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the World Confederation of Labour (WCL) have submitted an official complaint to the International Labour organization (ILO) in Geneva against these violations of ILO Conventions ratified by Belarus,
1. Expresses its regret and dismay at the infringements of trade union rights in the Republic of Belarus and calls on the Belarus authorities to apply fully the relevant ILO Conventions which it has ratified,
2. Calls upon the Commission and the Council in their contacts with the Belarus authorities to raise the matter of trade union rights, against the background of the EU-Belarus partnership and cooperation agreement, signed by both parties and now waiting for Parliament's assent, and the interim agreement,
3. Recalls that signing the partnership and cooperation agreement entails a commitment to the respect of basic democratic principles;
4. Calls upon the President of Belarus to withdraw Decree 336 of 21 August 1995 and to provide for the release of trade union members who are still in detention, and urges him to take all necessary measures to conclude as soon as possible the electoral process for a new parliament in order to restore the democratic legal framework in the country;
5. Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the commission, the Council, the President of Belarus, the ICFTU, the WCL and the ILO.
Today we can say that this resolution was the beginning of a series of international critics on the Belarus Government led by President Lukashenko. But Lukashenko knew how to stay in power and did not give in to any proposal on democratic reforms in his country. He was elected for the first time in 1994 and reelected in 2001, 2006 and 2010.
"The Belarusian government is also criticized for human rights violations and its persecution of non-governmental organisations, independent journalists, national minorities, and opposition politicians.In a testimony to the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labeled Belarus as one of the world's six "outposts of tyranny". In response, the Belarusian government called the assessment "quite far from reality". The Viasna Human Rights Centre lists 11 political prisoners currently detained in Belarus. Among them is the human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, Vice President of International Federation for Human Rights and head of Viasna.” (Wikipedia)