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Belarus: FSC accused of greenwashing furniture trade

Daria Bernstein
April 13, 2024

Signatories of an open letter have called for an independent investigation into furniture produced in Belarusian jails and exported to the EU. They claim the Forest Stewardship Council shut its eyes to forced labor.

A woman wearing blue overalls holds a table
Much of the furniture produced in Belarus is exported to the EUImage: Ales Petrowitsch/DW

Earlier this year, human rights activists, members of the European Parliament and former political prisoners in Belarus signed an open letter calling on the Forest Stewardship Council, the world's leading forestry certification scheme, to investigate why furniture made in Belarusian jails was able to receive the FSC seal of approval.

They accuse the Germany-based FSC of shutting its eyes to the use of forced labor in Belarus and thus helping Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko make more money.

"FSC's seal was instrumental in giving an appearance of sustainability to timber products linked to these penal colonies and forests and served to open the door to trade with the EU," reads the letter, whose signatories have demanded clarification.

On its website, the FSC describes itself as "the world's most trusted mark for sustainable forestry" and presents itself as an ethical organization. "When you purchase FSC-labelled products, you're helping forests, and the people that rely on them," it continues. "All workers are provided with proper training, adequate safety protocols, and fair wages."

Poland, Germany biggest importers of furniture from Belarus

According to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, the EU imported wooden furniture from Belarus worth more than €103 million ($110 million) between January and November 2023. Poland, Germany and the Netherlands were the largest buyers, followed by Romania and the Baltic states.

A storeroom with various pieces of wooden furniture
Furniture produced in Belarus is not on the EU sanctions listImage: Ales Petrowitsch/DW

Much of the furniture apparently received the certification before the FSC withdrew from Belarus, but the signatories of the letter have accused the body of not adequately investigating the conditions in which it was produced.

"Although FSC left Belarus in March 2022 […], it has failed to acknowledge or address its prior failures in the country and there is therefore nothing to prevent them being replicated elsewhere," the letter states.

FSC continued to certify furniture, despite mass repression

In November 2022, Earthsight, a British NGO, published a report that claimed the FSC had continued to issue certificates even after the rigged presidential election of August 2020 and despite the mass repression of dissent, the rise in the number of political prisoners and documented torture.

In response to a DW query, the FSC said appropriate working conditions were one of the principles for the certification. It added that it was "deeply concerned about human rights violations in Belarus as a result of violence and repression since 2020."

A pile of logs and a forest
The EU has imposed sanctions on timber from Belarus Image: Ales Petrowitsch/DW

But critics have claimed that the FSC only changed its course in March 2022. The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February that year made it difficult to conduct audits in Belarus. The FSC said it had already canceled all certificates for furniture produced in Belarusian penal establishments in 2021 amid concerns about human rights violations and the safety risks for auditors.

At the same time, it has said none of its annual controls in the prisons found any violations, and that forced labor was not an issue in all of Belarus' jails and therefore others could apply for FSC certification. 

'Exports supporting a regime that is involved in a war'

Pavel Sapelka, a lawyer for the Minsk-based Viasna Human Rights Center, said he regretted that the FSC had not contacted Belarusian activists to find out about the human rights situation in Belarusian jails.

Sapelka said the law allows forced labor in Belarusian prisons and that, apart from people with disabilities and those who were of retirement age, anyone sentenced to jail was obliged to work. "If a prisoner refuses, he is first put in a punishment cell, then he can be charged with malicious disobedience and punished with an additional two years in prison," he said.

A former prisoner who wished to remain anonymous confirmed this. "When you go to jail, you are not asked whether you want to work or not, you just have to. The prison authorities decide where you end up and how you get paid," he said.

He told DW that the costs of food and accommodation were deducted from people's wages, as were outstanding court costs. He said prisoners usually received between 10 and 15 rubles (the equivalent of less than €5) per month, and explained they had to ask their families to provide them with work clothes, such as gloves for carpentry.

Turkish journalist Can Dündar meets Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

Sapelka said such conditions could be described as forced, or even slave, labor and that all prisoners, including political prisoners, were affected.

Thomas Waitz, an Austrian member of the European Parliament and the co-chair of the European Greens party, also signed the letter to the FSC. He said furniture remained the biggest unsanctioned category of Belarusian exports to the EU.

"These exports are supporting a regime that is involved in a war and rooted in political repression," he said on his website.

This article was originally written in Russian.