Pope Leo XIII has Something to say About Labor Laws in Belarus

Rerum Novarum and Labor Practices in Belarus- Lindsey Swope

In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII of the Catholic Church proclaims that governments have certain duties to look after the workers of their countries. He further explains that the economic well-being of a country depends on the well-being of the workers of that particular country. Leo states:

Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labour, nor labour without capital.         Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity[1].

The passage above further reinforces the idea that the work force and the economic strength of a country go hand-in-hand. Inspired by this reading, I decided to delve deeper into this issue.

After doing a simple web search of “countries with the worst labor laws,” I was directed to an article listing the countries with the worst labor violations in the world. The number one country on the list was Belarus. In Belarus, the country’s economic well-being is in fact jeopardized by the reality of their poor labor laws—laws that strip away the dignity of the individual worker.

According to the Huffington Post, Belarus ranks as the number one country in the world for violation of workers’ rights[2]. Workers in this Eastern-European country face routine discrimination, forced labor, and repression of protests at the hands of the government. The country’s labor laws prohibit farming and forestry workers from leaving their jobs of their own free will—a situation that essentially qualifies as modern-day serfdom.

To relate the history of the country to present-day conditions, it is important to note that Belarus was formally under the control of the Soviet Union, a communist state. Today, Belarus is still geo-politically split between the political influences of Russia and the West. Recently, longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko introduced a forced-labor law, Decree No. 3, which translates literally as “on the prevention of social parasitism.”[3] This decree specifically has its roots in Communist Russia. In the Soviet Union, the term “social parasitism” applied to the state of “able-bodied citizens” who refused to work their Soviet-assigned job. In the USSR in 1961, this “parasitism” was considered a crime and those who refused to work were expelled from cities and were subjected to forced labor, such as in the Siberian labor camps. Today, in accordance with this new decree, every individual living in Belarus for at least half a year and one day has to pay the government a tax equivalent to $250 if he or she refuses to work. This decree, among other government-regulations on labor, continues to distress Belarus’s economy.

So, just who in Belarus qualifies as a “parasite?” In modern-day Belarus, housewives, including those raising one or two children more than seven years old, individuals caring for elderly family members, pregnant women who take maternity leave more than 70 days before their due date, journalists, artists, poets, musicians, writers, and other intellectuals who are not members of official labor unions or do not have officially-recognized labor certificates, low-income individuals who pay annual income taxes of less than $250, and people who do not have a permanent job and are not officially registered at a job bank qualify as “parasites.”[4] Their services are not seen as economically valuable to the president of Belarus.

Although one may think that these forced labor laws would effectively reduce the unemployment rate and that every man or woman would be able to find a job, that is not the case. Belarus currently has a very high, although officially unrecognized, rate of unemployment. Furthermore, the official employment office cannot provide enough jobs for the citizens of Belarus due to lack of workplaces, jobs, and very low salaries. Salaries in the public education, health serves, and state agriculture sectors are well below subsistence level. In addition to all of this, thanks to the recent decree, all citizens whose annual incomes are lower than $2,543 automatically qualify as a “social dependent,” and have the “parasitic” tax of $250 imposed upon them.

These labor regulations of Belarus are neither economically nor morally sound. In his writings, Pope Leo XIII further elaborates on the ethical treatment of workers and how this ethical treatment is actually beneficial to the economy.

The first thing that Belarus can learn from the Rerum Novarum is that the government has no right to infringe on the wellbeing of the family. Within the Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII specifically states that the government has no right to infringe on the rights of the family in any way, which directly clashes with Decree No. 3’s notion that all women (and men) who choose to stay home to raise their families are considered “parasitic.” In passage 12, Leo states:

No human law can abolish the natural and original right of marriage, nor in any way limit the chief and principal purpose of marriage ordained by God’s authority from the beginning: ‘Increase and multiply.’ Hence we have the family, the ‘society’ of man’s house—a society very small, one must, admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State.[5]

The next thing that Belarus can learn from Pope Leo XIII’s text is that, as Leo states, the poor are “equal in citizenship to the rich” and that “their work is the source of the nation’s wealth.” In saying this, he challenges the assumptions of those who look down on and belittle the poor. He directly challenges those, such as the government of Belarus, who consider the poor a “burden on society.”

Although Leo is not completely opposed to laissez faire economics, he believed that the rights of the working poor must be protected. For Leo, there were several moral obligations that employers must keep in mind when dealing with their employees: workers should not be treated as slaves; the human personality of workers must be respected; workers should not be treated as objects used for selfish personal gain; the needy must not be repressed for profit; and lastly, it is immoral to treat workers unjustly and, furthermore, it is not in the best interest of the ownership and management to treat workers poorly.

The words of Leo do prove true when looking at the statistics: Although Belarus seems to have a low rate of unemployment, their economy is a wreck. In December of 2015, the unemployment rate of Belarus was 1%. In comparison, the unemployment rate of the United States was 5% in March of 2016[6]. Forcibly decreasing unemployment can lead to massive inflation, though. In fact, the inflation rate of Belarus in March of 2016 was 12.8%[7], making it the country with the highest inflation rate in Europe, whereas the inflation rate for the United States was 0.9% in March of 2016[8]. Additionally, the GDP per capita of Belarus was a mere $8,040.00 from 2011-2015. The GDP per capita of the United States was $54,629.50 from 2011-2015[9]. By looking at these facts, one can reasonably conclude that although Belarus may have an artificially high employment rate, their economy and overall well-being is still suffering. Why is Belarus’s economy so weak? Well, as Pope Leo XIII would say, it’s because they do not treat the workers of their country with dignity.


[1] Leo XIII, Pope. “19.” In Rerum Novarum. Vatican.

[2] Burrow, Sharan. “Top 10 Worst Countries for Workers’ Rights: The Ranking No Country Should Want.” The Huffington Post. June 10, 2015. Accessed May 01, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sharan-burrow/top-ten-worst-countries-f_b_7553364.html.

[3] Ivanova, Tatyana. “Belarus Brings Back Forced Labor for ‘Social Parasites’.” Foreign Policy in Focus. May 25, 2015. Accessed May 1, 2016. http://fpif.org/belarus-brings-back-forced-labor-for-social-parasites/.

[4] Ivanova, Tatyana. “Belarus Brings Back Forced Labor for ‘Social Parasites’.” Foreign Policy in Focus. May 25, 2015. Accessed May 1, 2016. http://fpif.org/belarus-brings-back-forced-labor-for-social-parasites/.

[5] Leo XIII, Pope. “12.” In Rerum Novarum. Vatican.

[6] IEconomics. “Belarus vs United States.” IEconomics. 2016. Accessed May 1, 2016. http://ieconomics.com/united-states-vs-belarus.

[7] StatBureau. “Belarus Inflation Rate.” StatBureau. 2016. Accessed May 1, 2016. https://www.statbureau.org/en/belarus/inflation.

[8] Trading Economics. “United States Inflation Rate.” Trading Economics. 2016. Accessed May 1, 2016. http://www.tradingeconomics.com/united-states/inflation-cpi.

[9] The World Bank. “GDP per Capita.” The World Bank. 2015. Accessed May 1, 2016. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.PP.CD.



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