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Forced Labour, Eastern Europe

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 3 May 1949

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Motion made, and Question proposed. "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

11.18 p.m.

Despite the lateness of the hour, I want to raise the general question of slave labour camps in Eastern Europe. with particular reference to the recent discussion on this subject in the Economic and Social Council at Lake Success. Personally, I commend the attitude taken by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, but I wish he felt able to press for more energetic action.

As the House will remember, the subject arose out of a request by the American Federation of Labour that the International Labour Organisation should undertake a comprehensive survey on the extent of forced labour in all the member States of the United Nations, and suggest positive measures, including a revised convention and measures for its implementation with the goal of eliminating forced labour. So far as I can understand from the United Nations' report of the proceedings, the net result of the discussions in the Economic and Social Council was to transmit a memorandum to the International Labour Organisation for examination. I hope my hon. Friend can assure the House that this was not merely a dilatory process and that the British Government will continue to press for more positive and definite action to be taken. The statements made at Lake Success seem to show that the present situation in the U.S.S.R. and elsewhere in Eastern Europe is much more serious than had been suspected. If they are true, they affect human rights throughout the world.

I am sorry, but the hon. Member cannot discuss what goes on at international conferences, except in regard to the line taken by His Majesty's representatives. He cannot discuss the conditions arising in other countries. That is breaking the rule about interference with the internal conditions of foreign Powers.

I appreciate your Ruling. Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but I think it will become apparent, as I proceed, that I am merely trying to give a certain amount of background to indicate the attitude which I think this House would desire my right hon. Friend to take. The allegation is freely made and is supported by considerable evidence of an appalling use of forced labour on a widespread scale. It is estimated and based on statistics supplied by the Russians themselves, that between eight million and 14 million people are living in Russia alone in conditions indistinguishable from slavery. I do not know whether my hon. Friend agrees with that. When I speak of slavery I refer to the kind of institutions which we thought were abolished as a result of the campaign which we in this country associate with Wilberforce, which in America is associated with the proclamation of Abraham Lincoln in 1862 and in Czarist Russia with the abolition of serfdom in 1861. No one thought that that dark chapter of human history might recur so soon.

One of the disturbing features which has resulted from the discussions at Lake Success is that the existence of these labour camps is not denied by the Soviet authorities. Mr. Pavlov referred to them as "corrective labour camps." One knows that the idea of forced labour is specifically recognised in the U.S.S.R., and in accordance with the Soviet penal theories the work which the inmates of these camps have to undertake is technically regarded as re-education. I have always had the greatest admiration for the achievements of the U.S.S.R. and I am a lover and well-wisher of the Russian people; but it is tragic to think that between eight million and 14 million of these brave, honest people, are being re-educated by a process of working like slaves for very long hours without remuneration.

The hon. Member must pay attention to what I said. He cannot suggest interference with the internal workings of a foreign State. He can only suggest to the Minister in charge, or representing this country, that he should take certain steps at the United Nations and with other countries to get an alteration. He must not seek to interfere with the internal conditions in the U.S.S.R.

I appreciate your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and shall do my best to comply with it. As I have said, the conditions are such as to justify the most energetic action by His Majesty's Government through its representative at United Nations conferences in order to press for the fullest possible investigation into the conditions of labour which exist throughout the world. One knows that it has been proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, and is implicit in the whole of the international conception of the United Nations, that human rights are a matter with which world peace is indissolubly connected. It is for that reason that this country, as well as others, must of necessity wish for information about conditions of labour throughout the world. The denial of justice in one country leads to a denial of justice and perhaps to a threat to world peace generally.

Questions which I should like my hon. Friend to press at these international conferences are on some of those matters on which world opinion is concerned. For example, what are the crimes for which so many millions are sent to labour camps? What procedure is followed before sentence is pronounced? What are the working conditions in Karaganda and other camps? Is the punishment restricted to the individual, or is the whole family subjected to re-education? Can the prisoners correspond with their families and friends outside the camp? What is the mortality rate? None of these questions was answered in the recent debates. They were all ignored.

Unfortunately, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, it is only Russia and her satellites that maintain such an inscrutable curtain of mystery about their internal labour conditions. What impartial evidence have we of general trade union conditions in Russia and Eastern Europe and of the hours and standards of the workers? How are trade union conditions generally affected by forced labour on a large scale? If the suggestions one hears on all sides were false, one's doubts could be so easily dispelled by the Russian authorities allowing an independent and impartial inquiry either by the International Labour Organisation or by some other body under international auspices.

I hope we can have an assurance from my hon. Friend that His Majesty's Government will continue to press for such an inquiry. If Russia declines such an investigation, can it be wondered that people will draw their own conclusions? One cannot, unfortunately, ignore the accumulating collection of sworn testimony about conditions in Karaganda and similar camps. I feel that a great many hon. Members are deeply concerned on this subject and would hope, as a result of pressure from His Majesty's Government, that an independent and impartial internationally accredited body would be able to carry out an inquiry facilitated by all countries who are member States of the United Nations, with a view to bringing to the light of day the conditions that exist and securing a general improvement in labour conditions throughout the world.

11.27 p.m.

I want to take up the time of the House only for a minute to ask my hon. Friend what representations the British Government have lately made, either through the United Nations or through any other channel, with regard to some of the unfortunate inhabitants of the camp at Karaganda to which my hon. Friend referred. These particular people, Spanish Republicans who were sent there during the civil war in Spain, have now apparently completely disappeared. Their relatives in their own country or in other parts of Europe have been entirely out of touch with them for many years and the only reports available show that these people are still being held under conditions of great squalor and great barbarity in these camps in the Soviet Union. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could say whether the Government are aware of that tragic situation and whether they have been able to take any steps to secure the release of these unfortunate men.

11.28 p.m.

Fulfilling their responsibilities under Article 55 of the Charter, the United Nations have now, for the first time, taken official note of this problem of forced labour. By an overwhelming majority, the Economic and Social Council, at its last meeting, resolved to ask the Secretary-General to approach all member Governments to inquire to what extent they would co-operate in an impartial inquiry in their countries on the problem of forced labour and also asked the I.L.O. to give further consideration to this problem. I am sure that that was a proper step for the United Nations to take. It would, I think, show a great lack of proportion in the work of the United Nations if it continued to deal conscientiously with questions such as racial discrimination, infringement of trade union rights and freedom of information, and yet turned a blind eye to a form of oppression which includes all those evils and also goes far beyond them.

I am grateful for the appreciation which my hon. Friend showed in his speech of the part played by the United Kingdom delegation in this connection, and I can give him the assurance he asked, that we shall continue to press this question. Citizens of Western democracy have a special right and a special duty to inquire into and make known the truth about forced labour in Communist countries. This right and this duty arise from the fact that all over the world Communists are attempting to weaken and undermine Western democracy by false propaganda about the superior virtues of their own system. We have therefore the right and duty of exposing Communist pretensions, of making the truth about Communism known in defence of Western democracy.

I recently presented at United Nations some of the evidence of the existence of mass forced labour in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. In an Adjournment Debate such as this I have unfortunately not enough time to cover the ground again nor to quote the fresh evidence which constantly reaches His Majesty's Government on the subject. I can do no more than briefly describe the source of this evidence which I have described. The best evidence is that produced by the Soviet State itself. Despite rigid secrecy and censorship, indications of the truth occasionally leak out in official Soviet speeches and publications. For example, reference to forced labour was made by Mr. Molotov in his speech to the Sixth Congress of Soviets in 1931. References are found on pages 1087 to 1089 of the 1939 volume of the official periodical "Sovietskya Yustitsia," and in the second volume of the year 1934 of the same periodical. There is a description of the use of forced labour on the famous Belomor Canal Project contained in the book "The Baltic-White Sea Canal in the name of Stalin" edited by Maxim Gorki.

Suggestive information can be deduced from calculations based on the official figures of the circulation of Soviet newspapers to places of detention, and also from calculations based on wages, the labour force and the total payroll of the Soviet Union. Much can also be deduced from such enactments as the Decree of 1935 giving to the Special Council of the Ministry of Internal Affairs the power to inflict on persons "regarded as dangerous to the community" banishment to places under supervision or detention in forced labour camps for a period of up to five years. These powers are exercised without any order of a court. This is some of the official evidence which I surveyed at the United Nations in connection with the resolution before the Economic and Social Council.

A second kind of evidence comes from individuals who have escaped from the Soviet orbit. Around the vast territory controlled by the Soviet Union from Korea to Germany, people are continually fleeing to the free world. Many of these people have either been in camps or had close relatives or friends there, or have known something about them from the police or military side, or have been connected with the engineering projects on which forced labour is used. It is probably always wise to treat with caution the evidence of refugees about the conditions of life from which they have fled. Many will be bitter and prejudiced; some may hope to gain advantage in their country of asylum by exaggerating the horror of conditions from which they have fled. But though we may treat these refugees' stories with the maximum scepticism, we cannot wholly ignore them. Their stories have been carefully examined and compared. Men who have never met each other and who come from different parts of the world are able to draw the same plan of a camp.

There is an enormous literature about Soviet forced labour. I have a list here of the titles and authors of 16 books on the subject. Most of the authors are escaped prisoners or former Soviet officials. I must not of course be taken as vouching for the authenticity of these books; some are certainly unreliable; but taken as a whole they form part of such a large mass of testimony that I do not think their message can be ignored by reasonable people. It is supplemented by the opinions of numbers of displaced persons and refugees from the Soviet Union some of whom held quite responsible posts in the Soviet State.

The sources of information on forced labour in Communist countries outside the Soviet, which I quoted at the recent meeting of the Economic and Social Council, are of an even more official nature. There, forced labour has not yet reached the scale or severity of Soviet Russia, but the seed has been firmly planted. In Czechoslovakia, no attempt is made to disguise the fact that forced labour camps now exist. I would draw the attention of the House to Law No. 247 of 25th October, 1948. Article 1, Section 3, of this law states that prisoners are employed on national work in fulfillment of the general economic plan. Article 2, Section 1, states that they include persons between 18 and 60 who shirk work or "menace the structure of the people's democratic order," as well as financial and economic offenders. Article 3, Section 2, states that officially sentences run for three months to two years. Article 5 states that appeals cannot delay the execution of the sentence. Article 6 states that sentences may be shortened or prolonged at the suggestion of the camp administration.

In Bulgaria, I draw attention to the law of November 1945 establishing "labour education committees" and the law of 1946 establishing "idlers' camps." The militia camps submit the name of anyone as an idler to the Minister of the Interior who can then mobilise him for compulsory labour. The idlers' camps are the milder form of concentration camp, involving six-month sentences of heavy manual labour.

Finally, in the Soviet zone of Germany both the concentration camps and the Nazi technique have been taken over and improved upon. Research undertaken a year ago indicated that the German concentration camp population was denser than in Germany up to 1939. There are, we have reason to believe, 200,000 to 300,000 prisoners in six major and six or seven smaller camps. Time does not permit me to survey the documentation of the concentration camp population of the Soviet zone of Germany.

I am sorry, but there is not time. I have been asked about the scale of forced labour in the Soviet Union. Many wild guesses have been made and also some grotesque exaggerations. Most responsible estimates vary between five and twelve million. I think, however, that we should distinguish between various types of this evil. To begin with, there is forced labour in the sense in which the term is generally used: that is, people detained in camps or penal colonies, working either for their keep, or for a trifling sum in cash, on major mining and industrial projects. Then there is the milder form of penal exile known as Silka. This is a continuation of the Czarist system of exile: people are simply removed from the areas in which they live and are sent to remote districts, though they are free to move about the immediate locality of their exile. Article 22 of the official publication, "Basic principles of criminal legislation of the U.S.S.R." reads, in part, as follows:

"…punishment in the form of exile (or silka) or exclusion from an area can be applied by sentence of the court on the recommendation of the State-Prosecutor against persons recognised as being socially dangerous, without any criminal proceedings being taken against these persons on charges of committing a specific offence, and also even in those cases where those persons are acquitted by a court of the accusation of committing a specific crime. The above regulation is specifically incorporated in the criminal codes of several union republics."
That is a quotation from an official Soviet document.

On 12th July, 1946, the Supreme Court ruled that the above provision was to be regarded as having lapsed since legislation on "Soviet Law Courts," passed subsequently, had "not provided for this regulation." But whatever the position may be about those acquitted by the courts, the legislation embodying the rule about socially dangerous elements has not yet been specifically repealed.

After this comes "corrective labour," which is a mild form involving such work as chopping wood, usually for a few months at a time, to which minor offenders are sentenced. There is then the extensive system of sentencing manual and clerical workers who are late or lazy. or in any other way fail to fulfil their norms of either time or output, to periods of labour without pay or for a quarter of their wage, at their own work. where they are under open arrest for the period of their sentence. Anyone who is more than 20 minutes late for his work, or is late more than three times in a single month, can be sentenced to periods varying from a fortnight to six months on quarter pay.

The Soviet Government and the Soviet delegates at the United Nations meetings said that there is no mass forced labour in the Soviet Union, but merely a few corrective labour camps conducted in a praiseworthy, civilised way. Sufficient evidence is already available to the free world, regarding the size and extent of these camps and the conditions which exist in them to refute this argument. Moreover, we are bound to ask, if the argument is true, why were the camps kept so secret? It is open at any time to the Soviet Government to prove its case by letting the world see the conditions which exist. If these camps are relatively small, humanely-conducted corrective camps, why are they shrouded in such absolute secrecy? They are even more strictly guarded and concealed than were Hitler's concentration camps. Freedom of movement for foreigners was greater in Nazi Germany than it is in the Soviet Union today. Foreign diplomats were not restricted to a radius of 50 miles from the capital city. Newspapermen travelled freely in comparison with what is now possible in Soviet Russia. If the Soviet Union is proud of its camps and not ashamed of them, why does it hide them from view to an extent which even Hitler never found necessary, even in respect of his concentration camps?

At the last meeting of the Economic and Social Council, I suggested to the Soviet delegate that the Soviet Government might invite representatives of U.N. to visit the following areas: The great penal area of Karaganda in the Kazakh Desert; the concentration of camps at Dalstroi in the Far East, including the coalmining camp on the Kolyma River; the Pechora group in the North of Europe; the Lake Baikal group in Siberia; the Yagri group in the Archangel region; and the groups in the Lapland, Novaya Zemlya, Sakhalin, Kamchatka and the Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk and Arctic regions. I stated that our information suggested that these camps included only a fraction of the total forced labour population of the Soviet Union. But visits even to these camps would do much to reassure the outside world.

The Soviet delegate replied very briefly that the Soviet Government would certainly not allow these areas to be inspected by what he chose to describe as "American Gauleiters." Later in the debate, however, the Soviet delegate put forward a counter-resolution on the subject of forced labour. This called for the establishment of a workers' committee reporting to workers' organisations throughout the world, including the W.F.T.U., the T.U.C., the A.F.L. and others. This committee, consisting of over 100 workers' representatives, should study workers' conditions in various countries of the world. After he had introduced his resolution, the Soviet delegate was naturally asked whether, in carrying out its functions, this workers' committee would be able to visit Soviet Russia, amongst other countries. At first the Soviet delegate evaded the question, but eventually, under repeated question- ing, he confessed that it would not be allowed to visit Soviet Russia. He stated that if the committee were to visit Soviet Russia in the course of its duties, its report would be interminably delayed.

I quote the official summary record of the Economic and Social Council, Document E/SR. 263, which makes this remarkable fact plain:
"His reply was that if the commission were empowered to visit all countries including the U.S.S.R., it would take approximately 10 years to reach any conclusions."
It was thus seen that the Soviet objection was not, in fact, founded upon fear of inspection by "American Gauleiters." The Soviet Government objected to Soviet workers' conditions being inspected by workers' committees established on their own formula and at their own initiative. I think that is a truly remarkable and revealing fact, which deserves to be widely known. The attitude of the Soviet Government redoubles the fear and anxiety of the world on the whole subject of forced labour in Soviet Russia.

I have not covered even a fraction of the ground on this subject, nor have I touched on the human side. I have said nothing about the separation of families or the mortality rate. I have introduced no emotion in what I have said. I have also not replied to a number of questions put to me regarding the trade union rights of workers in the Soviet Union. I sincerely wish it were possible to take an entirely different attitude toward the question of the workers' rights and conditions in the Soviet Union. We know what they started from; we know the standard which obtained under the Czarist regime and which was inherited.

We would sincerely wish to take an attitude of sympathy and co-operation but a myth is being sedulously fostered about the standards of the Soviet worker. It is a myth deliberately employed to undermine Western democracy. The myth is believed because of the brazenness and the impudence of Soviet propaganda and pretensions and because of the impenetrable wall of secrecy surrounding Soviet Russia. Therefore, it is the duty of leaders in the Western democracies to expose the true facts; to expose these Communist pretensions. I hope and believe that the initiative of the United Nations will be warmly followed up; and I hope that this Debate, which has covered only one part of the conditions of the life of the workers in Soviet Russia, will have established at least one part of the truth which is, that so far as the interests of the workers are concerned, Western democracy has nothing to learn from Soviet Russia.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Thirteen Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.