Four metalworkers in Belarus, who went on a two-day hunger strike to bring public attention to their unfair dismissal, are now facing a fine or even jail.
The desperate workers, who were employed by the Bobruisk Factory of Tractor Parts and Units (BZTDiA), were detained by police on 10 November while they were on hunger strike, and accused of unauthorized public protest.
They are now awaiting a court summons and could be slapped with a significant fine or even a prison sentence.
The workers, who are all members of the Free trade Union of Belarus (SPB), disagree with the accusation of an unauthorized protest and say they are in fact victims of arbitrary dismissal for being unionists.
The sacked workers have received solidarity support from their colleagues at other unions and at least four people joined them in their hunger strike out of sympathy.
In a company response dated 14 November, the factory director said the dismissals were due to the optimization of the factory workforce and were not linked to their SPB membership. However, BZTDiA has been advertising for new workers with the same skills as the people who were fired.
Workers wrote an open letter to the President of the Belarus last month, raising their concerns about how their factory is managed and the way in which the director was abusing the country's short-term contract system to dismiss highly skilled professionals for being unionists. The government response was simply to endorse the company's position.
The system of short-term contracts and its use in persecution of trade union activists in Belarus has been heavily criticized by the international labour movement. It formed part of the complaint against violations of Freedom of Association submitted to the International Labour Organization in 2000. Since then the ILO has regularly considered the Belarusian case, noting little or no progress in implementing recommendations made by an ILO Commission of Inquiry.
The latest report of the Committee on Freedom of Association referring to Belarus is available on the ILO website.