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Ukrainian workers battle controversial new labour code

Trade unionists block a road in the Luhansk Region in protest against Ukraine's proposed new labour code, 14 January, 2019. Photo (c): Pervaya Polosa. Used with permission.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky tried to strike a note of unity and inclusivity in his New Year's speech, calling on citizens of all professions and backgrounds to ask themselves the question “Who am I?”

Zelensky may have started 2020 by asking the questions, but two weeks on, the Ukrainian government is on the back foot dealing with an outraged section of the population. 

The government in Kyiv plans to introduce a new labour code in order to “simplify” employment practices. The initiative, which was drafted without prior consultation with trade unions, has left lawyers and workers deeply concerned. According to Labour Initiatives NGO, it includes provisions for employers to terminate contracts without good reason, reduces the premium for overtime pay, obliges employees to disclose any (vaguely defined) information which may impact the performance of their work, and significantly expands the scope of zero-hours contracts. Furthermore, it amends Ukraine's current law on trade unions, limiting the number of unions in an enterprise to two, increasing the minimum number of members required to start a trade union, and allowing directors to refuse to negotiate with unions who employ (vaguely defined) “managerial” staff.

Trade unionists are predictably up in arms. While they're urging parliamentarians to vote against the new labour code at the end of this month, today locals blocked roads in three towns in Luhansk region. An online flashmob has been launched with the hashtags #МолодьПРОТИрабства (youth against slavery) and #НіРабськимЗаконам (no to slave laws). The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) now declares that the Ukrainian government “has sided decisively with oligarchs and multinational enterprises against its own people.” As Sergey Movchan, a journalist and editor at the left-wing journal Political Critique wrote on Facebook, “the holidays are over, and the protests are beginning.”

Zelensky and his allies in the Servant of the People party were swept to power in landslide parliamentary and presidential elections last year, promising a complete overhaul of Ukraine's deeply unpopular political elite. But they are now discovering that their agenda for domestic reform attracts a more mixed response. A move to overturn a ban on the sale of agricultural land to foreigners has been particularly controversial.

Many observers of Ukrainian politics have seen these moves coming. Several influential members of Servant of the People, such as party ideologist Ruslan Stefanchuk, are known to have free-market libertarian leanings. Speaking about the party's ideological sympathies, one of the authors was told by party chairman Dmytro Razumkov before last year's parliamentary elections that Servant of the People isn't “[libertarian] when it comes to social guarantees to our fellow citizens, because at present there are many citizens who require the support of a social state.” Razumkov did not specify exactly which guarantees this meant, but a constriction of labour rights would be in keeping with other policy proposals. Last November, parliament passed a law constraining the labour rights of public servants in Ukraine, restricting their ability to use trade unions to fight for better conditions at work.

The new labour code was introduced by Minister of Economic Development Timofiy Milovanov and Halyna Tretyakova, a parliamentary deputy from Servant of the People. In comments to Focus.UA last September, Tretyakova said that the goal of the new labour code was to streamline the process of opening and closing businesses, thereby creating more new jobs. By her own admission, the law would clash with employees’ rights, but Prime Minister Oleksiy Goncharuk dismissed the existing labour code as a Soviet hangover, joking that “people don't want to hire a registered employee because it's almost like your relative. In Ukraine, it's often easier to divorce than to dismiss an employee.”

Milovanov argued that Ukraine's trade unions did little to defend workers, and were in dire need of reform themselves:

Профспілки є різні. Є профспілки, які борються за права робітників. А є такі, хто насправді працюють на керівництво підприємств. Особливо олігархічних. Щось я не бачу протестів профспілок проти умов та оплати праці на заводах олігархів. А ще є такі, які взагалі нічого не роблять, і просто отримують (обов’язковий) відсоток з зарплати робітників. Ситуація з профспілками має бути змінена. Справжні, ефективні профспілки мають отримати доступ до ресурсів. А ті, хто паразитують на робітниках, мають бути зупинені.

Trade unions are diverse. There are those which fight for workers’ rights. And there are those which actually work for the management of enterprises. Especially oligarch-owned ones. For some reason I don't see trade unions protesting against conditions and wages at oligarch-owned enterprises. There are [unions] which don't do anything at all, and just receive a (mandatory) percentage of workers’ salaries. That is why the situation with trade unions must change. Real, effective unions should have access to resources. And those which leech off workers have to be stopped.

— Timofiy Milovanov, Facebook, 7 January 2020

Labour rights activists believe that the draft labour code sets a radically different principle for the role of trade unions in Ukrainian society, however imperfect they may be. International colleagues share their deep concern, with several international unions coming out against the law. ILAW, a network of lawyers engaged in trade union issues, is one of several international organisations to have pointed out in an open letter that the new labour code actually goes against international agreements on civil and economic rights which Ukraine ratified.

Svetlana Kozhushko, labour law expert, associate professor and media commentator, believes that the new code actually violates Article 22 of the country's Constitution.

Проєкт трудового кодексу звужує права працівників. Це пряме порушення Конституції України 22 статті, яка чітко зазначає, що при прийнятті нового законодавства не допускається звуження прав. Йде мова про порушення трудових прав.

The draft labour law reduces the rights of workers. This is a direct violation of Article 22 of the Constitution of Ukraine, which clearly states that new legislation cannot reduce rights. We’re talking about a violation of labour rights.

— Svetlana Kozhushko, Facebook, 8 January 2020

Vitalii Kopysh, a trade union activist and trainer from Chernihiv, wrote the following in reaction to an event dedicated to the proposed law:

Загальне враження можна описати так: влада нас не просто дурить, а нахабно і цинічно дурить. Коротше кажучи: урядова “реформа” – це менша зарплата, менше відпусток, менше доплат, нуль захисту. Начальник – бог, ви – ніхто.

Проекти авторства Тимофей Милованов та Tretyakova Galina не просто звужують права працюючих і профспілок. Вони порушують міжнародні стандарти праці та руйнують соціальні гарантії, що були напрацьовані протягом десятків років.

Головний аргумент “реформаторів”: у нас “радянський” КЗпП. Ок, в Польщі також користуються старим кодексом і права профспілок там захищені краще ніж у нас. Але при цьому Польща – це країна, що зробила економічний прорив, не перетворюючи власних працівників на худобу.

My general impression is as follows: the government isn’t just making a fool of us, it’s doing it rudely and cynically. In short: this government ‘reform’ means a smaller wage, less time off, less additional payments, no protection. Your boss is God and you’re no one. The draft laws by Timofiy Milovanov and Galina Tretyakova [head of the parliamentary committee on social policy] don’t just reduce the rights of working people and trade unions. They violate international standards of work and ruin social guarantees developed over decades. The main argument of the ‘reformers’ is that we have a ‘Soviet’ Labour Code. OK, in Poland they also use an old [Labour] code and the rights of trade unions are protected better than here. And Poland is a country that made an economic leap without turning their workers into slaves.

— Vitaliy Kopysh, Facebook, 5 January 2020

Artem Tidva, a Kyiv-based labour activist, suggested that the authors of the draft labour code might be rather distant from the daily realities of working Ukrainians:

Очевидно, що ні Мілованов, ні Третьякова ніколи не працювали і не проходили співбесід. Їм ввижається, що при прийомі на роботу працівник диктує працедавцеві умови свого найму. Як такі люди працюють у міністерствах? Їх просто ставлять на такі місця, як лобістів і пропагандистів певних економічних перетворень. Трансформації, які вони нам несуть полягають у спрощені процедури звільнення матерів з дітьми до 3 років, ліквідація поняття перерви на роботі, понаднормова робота вважатиметься звичайною роботою, скорочення додаткових відпусток у зв'язку зі шкідливими умовами праці, масовий перехід на короткострокові контракти і ще багато новорічних сюрпризів.

It’s obvious that neither Milovanov nor Tretyakova have ever worked nor gone to a job interview. They think that, during the employment process, it’s the worker who dictates the conditions of employment. How do these people work in ministries? They are just placed in these positions as lobbyists and propagandists of certain kinds of economic transformation. The changes they’re bringing us involve simplifying the process of firing mothers with children up to three years old, removing the concept of a break at work, overtime work will be considered normal working hours, removal of additional days off when working in dangerous conditions, a mass shift to short-term contracts and a whole bunch of other New Year’s surprises.

— Artem Tidva, Facebook, 27 December 2019

With further protests planned across the country, it is likely that labour rights will become a political flashpoint in 2020. In an open letter addressed to Zelensky, a metal workers’ union from Dnipro region turned the president's New Year's philosophical invitation into something rather more concrete: “Who are you with? And what are you for?” Ukrainian workers will soon find out.

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