Workers of Borisovdrev rush to change jobs before it will be banned.
Belarus' authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has decided to stem an exodus of qualified workers to Russia, starting by banning those who work in wood-processing industries from quitting. Critics have compared the measure to serfdom and warned that it would only deepen the former Soviet republic's economic troubles and fuel protests against Lukashenko.
Vladimir Dodonov wants to flee Belarus for neighboring Russia before it becomes illegal to leave his job at a wood-processing plant. Dodonov, 37, who earns the equivalent of $140 a month at the Borisovdrev plant, says he could make several times as much in Russia and would have left earlier if he hadn't had to care for his ailing mother. "How can you survive on such a miserable salary?" he said this week. "Naturally, I'm thinking about leaving for Russia before they turn me into a slave."
It could be too late.
"You will be sentenced to compulsory labor and sent back here if you leave," Lukashenko warned Friday during a visit to the plant, located in the industrial city of Borisov, about 70 kilometers (some 45 miles) east of the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
The president said his decree would apply to more than 13,000 employees of nine state-run wood-processing plants and 2,000-3,000 construction workers involved in modernizing them. Lukashenko said on a visit to the plant that his decree would become effective on Dec. 1. Even though he hasn't signed it yet, Borisovdrev workers who tried to quit this week were barred from doing so by the administration under various pretexts.
Lukashenko promised to raise an average worker's salary at the plant from the current $150 a month to $400-$500, roughly what it would be in Russia. He pledged to increase it further to $1,000 by 2015, but some of the workers were skeptical.
"My children want to eat now without waiting for 2015," said Nikolai Khmelevsky, 42, who currently earns about $200 a month at the Borisovdrev plant. "I have been looking for another job, and now they will tie me here."
Managers at the Borisovdrev plant, a set of grim-looking Soviet-era buildings, refused to comment. The plant and other wood-processing plants are part of a concern that is 100 percent owned by the state, as are most Belarusian industries. The wood-processing plants export most of their output to Russia and Europe.