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Eastern Europe

Belarus accused of re-introducing forced labor

Belarus is said to use rigorous measures to prevent workers from leaving state enterprises. It's become hard to quit a job. Trade unions are calling the new decree "a return to the Middle Ages."

Kari Tapiola chose his words carefully. So far, nobody has "formally" filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization, ILO, regarding the decree issued by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, according to the special advisor to the ILO General Secretary. That's why the UN Organization based in Geneva could not issue a statement, he added.

Courts can force workers to pay back benefits

Some of the measures in question have been dubbed as "slavery" by critics in Belarus. Decree number nine, which was put in place in December 2012, effectively takes away the right of workers in the wood processing industry to quit their jobs. It concerns state enterprises which are in the process of modernization. These enterprises often pay benefits to their workers. According to the new decree, employees wishing to leave the company against the will of their employers have to pay back these benefits. If the employees refuse to do so, a court can intervene.

Lukashenko, who has been called "Europe's last dictator" by Western media, justifies these limitations as a necessity in the process of modernizing timber factories. Criticism doesn't bother Lukashenko at all. During a visit of a wood processing plant in December 2012, he said Belarus would likely "be denounced as a dictatorship even more loudly," but he stressed that rigid discipline was vital.

Violation of international rules?

Alexander Yaroshuk from the independent association of Belarusian labor unions heavily criticizes the decree. "It throws Belarus back to the Middle Ages, when farmers got their freedom only after paying a lot of money," Yaroshuk told DW. He believes the new Belarusian regulation represents a violation of the ILO's International Convention concerning Forced or Compulsory Labor.

Article Two of that convention, which dates back to the year 1930, defines forced labor as all involuntary work or service exacted under the menace of a penalty.

The decree drawn up by the Belarusian President could indeed constitute a violation of international rules, confirmed Kari Tapiola - a violation not just of the aforementioned Convention on Forced Labor, but also potentially of the Convention concerning Employment Policy, which was signed in 1964. A team of experts needed to assess whether that was the case or not, stressed the special advisor.

Lukashenko wants to stop emigration

40 percent of Belarusian territory consists of forests

The timber industry is not a key industry for Belarus, but it plays a crucial role for the country's export economy. Up to 40 percent of the Eastern European country's territory consists of forests. More than 10,000 people are employed in the sector, but wages of some $300 a month are too low to cover the rapidly rising costs of living. The country's currency has lost three quarters of its value since 2011. Food prices have been skyrocketing ever since.

Many Belarusians leave the country for better-paid jobs abroad. According to official figures, more than 6,000 people left in the first half of 2012. But the number of unreported cases is estimated to be a lot higher. The majority go to Russia. The two countries have an open border because of the common economic space they've created. The result is a lack of skilled workers in the timber industry and in other industries in Belarus.

For years, the International Labor Organization has repeatedly criticized Belarus. In November 2012, an ILO report said that independent trade unions could not work properly in the country because of the obstacles they faced there. In addition, ILO representatives have criticized the government in Minsk for its "command economy", since 70 percent of the Belarusian economy is still state-owned.

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