Belarusian Radio and Electronic Industry Workers’ Union (REP)
Belarus has traditionally had a strong radio and electronics sector with highly qualified staff. Nearly 30 years ago, many of them, union members by default in the past, chose to cast their votes in favour of creating their own new, independent union.
The union united some 275,000 members and became the largest union in industry in Belarus. The union also joined what was then only trade union centre, the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FPB).
While the country transitioned from a planned economy to a market oriented one, many companies had to seek new markets and build up new distribution networks. A series of economic crises followed. Salaries plummeted, and in the absence of orders, factories reduced the number of staff, which led to a decline in union membership.
“These were very challenging times, but together with other unions, REP never stopped fighting for working people,”
says Gennady Fedynich.
In the early 1990s, trade unions were directly involved in mass protests.
Thousands of people were saying “No to the impoverishment of the people” in the central squares in Minsk. The protests forced the government to react and helped to stabilize the situation in industry, at the same time as new independent unions began to appear in Belarus. In 1993, the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions was formed.
Restrictions on freedom
With the election of Lukashenko as President in 1994, many civil society institutions were put under increasingly firm state control; freedoms became even more limited than during Soviet times.
For trade unions it became increasingly difficult to escape state control.
In 2000, REP was one of the initiators of a complaint to the International Labour 1 Organization (ILO) on violations of trade union and workers’ rights in Belarus (the country has since been under constant ILO scrutiny).
The response from the government was quick: instead of rectifying the situation, in 2003, Lukashenko’s administration made the deputy head of the presidential administration the new leader of the union federation. Through manipulation and administrative pressure, the newcomer replaced the most challenging independent leaders in the national unions affiliated to the FPB.
REP withdrew from the FPB in protest.
The authorities’ response was to create an industrial union, fully controlled by the authorities. Through pressure from both the administration and factory directors, this so-called union absorbed most of REP’s member unions. In a major blow, the REP was left with only 630 members.
“Organizing in conditions with such heavy pressure on workers is extremely difficult, but it is still the main focus of REP,”
says Gennady Fedynich.
“And despite all the efforts of the authorities, our trade union has managed to grow to 2,500 members.”
In 2009, REP joined the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions.
Currently, REP is present in 28 larger towns in all provinces of the country, as well as the capital Minsk. The union is building up its presence at production sites across the country.
Towards the end of the 1990s, President Lukashenko introduced a decree on fixed-term contracts. The entire workforce of the country was gradually put on one-year, or at most five-year, contracts. Once expired, workers could be out on the street without any severance pay or compensation.
The REP rushed to protect the workers and organized a number of legal advice centres where union lawyers would help workers to protect their interests. Although this made the union activists the targets of threats and abuse from employers, Fedynich says that providing this service to all workers gave the REP a good opportunity to organize more members.
Belarus does not attract a lot of foreign investment. In an attempt to raise income for the state, authorities introduced the infamous Decree no. 3, which effectively penalized the unemployed, making them subject to a high tax. The decree was immediately dubbed in public as the “Decree on social parasites,” in reference to similar legislation that had existed in the Soviet Union.
On REP’s initiative, comprehensive work was launched to abolish the decree. At the beginning of 2017, union members were very active in mass protests against the decree. As usual, authorities replied with a wave of repression – 36 members of the REP were fined a total of BYN 8,027 (US$4,292) and many were arrested.
Union members spent a total of 225 days in jail, and were also subjected to an additional fine of BYN 2,600 (US$1,380).
Fearing further protests, Belarusian authorities withdrew Decree no. 3, only to reintroduce a modified version under a different name a few months later. The new decree enforced the same principle of penalizing the unemployed for their inability to find a job in the country. The new version of the decree is heavily criticized both inside and outside of the country for elements of forced labour, but the government plans to bring it into force in 2019.
The active role of the union and fear of further mass protests are very likely what was behind another major attack on REP by the Belarusian authorities.
Early in the morning on 3 August 2017, the offices of several IndustriALL affiliates, REP and the Belarusian Independent Trade Union of Miners, Chemical workers, Oil-refiners, Energy, Transport, Construction and other workers, as well as their leaders’ homes, were searched as part of a criminal investigation against Gennady Fedynich and Ihar Komlik, REP’s chairperson and chief accountant, for alleged large-scale tax evasion.
Ihar Komlik was arrested and spent two months in prison. The investigation lasted an entire year and investigators interrogated more than 800 union members as witnesses. According to reports, during the interrogations investigators were particularly interested to know more about the trade union and its activities, rather than about the accused leaders and their supposed crimes.
The trial finally took place in August 2018.
It was closely followed by IndustriALL Global Union both through observers from affiliates in the region, as well as media.
IndustriALL assistant general secretary Kemal Özkan was present in the court as the verdict was announced.
“IndustriALL believes that even though the criminal case was brought against two individuals, it is clearly against the trade union itself and in a broader sense against the rights of independent unions,”
“Together with our affiliates, we will continue to support the REP, Gennady Fedynich and Ihar Komlik in their struggle to defend and advance workers’ rights in Belarus.”
UPDATE: Since this article was published in IndustriALL’s magazine Global Worker, Gennady was forced to step down as chairperson of the union after the court found him guilty. The union committee has now created a special position of a union advisor for Gennady.
The authorities have imposed impossible conditions on Gennady Fedynitch and Ihar Komlik. They are de facto imprisoned in their flats; even visiting a doctor is a problem. Their freedom of movement is seriously restricted; on weekdays, they are allowed only to go to work and back, and on weekends they must stay at home. Police can come and check on their presence several times per night.
Gennady and Ihar are clearly political prisoners. But together with their union, they continue to fight against injustices in Belarus.
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