Worker Rights Experts Field COVID-19 Queries in Ukraine

Worker Rights Experts Field COVID-19 Queries in Ukraine

In Ukraine, as workers face employer efforts to shortchange their pay, lay them off or take other adverse actions during the COVID-19 crisis, many are turning to Labor Initiatives, a Solidarity Center-supported Ukrainian NGO that provides legal assistance to workers.

Teleworking from home under Ukraine’s COVID-19 quarantine, the six-member staff, along with eight legal student interns, are fielding questions from e-mail, Facebook, Viber and the organization’s hotline.

“We are working until 1 or 2 a.m. each day,” says George Sandul, Labor Initiatives legal director.

In the first week of the quarantine, Labor Initiatives lawyers provided some 100 consultations, and the organization’s FAQ page on labor rights during the quarantine now has more than 60,000 views. The website, Our Kyiv, also posted the FAQs and reports 100,000 views, says Sandul.

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Coal miners, health care workers and grocery story workers are some of the workers who seek legal advice at Labor Initiatives on their rights at work. Credit: NPGU

Labor Initiatives staff are addressing questions from many workers reporting their employer is not providing safeguards against the novel coronavirus. Railroad drivers, grocery store workers and health care workers, especially in small cities, say they have no personal protective equipment. Ukraine’s occupational safety and health law stipulates that if working conditions could result in employees becoming sick or injured, an employee may refuse work if the employer does not provide safe conditions.

Yet many employers are not abiding by the law, says Sandul—unless workers are represented by unions. For instance, at Nova Poshta, a logistical company where 14,000 of the 30,000 workers are union members, the union successfully pushed the employer to provide antiseptics and protective masks and gloves, in addition to paid leave.

All Nova Poshta delivery offices are now equipped with special transparent barriers to better protect operators working with clients. In addition, Nova Poshta provided one month’s health insurance for all employees, telework options and paid leave. Labor Initiatives lawyers provided legal assistance to workers during an organizing campaign at the company in 2018, and also helped them negotiate a strong collective bargaining agreement.

Although Parliament passed a temporary law effective during the quarantine that provides for telework and unlimited vacations, Sandul says the measures are implemented at employers’ discretion, and the law does not offer guidance on how to implement it. The varying company policies that result, and the challenges in ensuring employers honor requirements for some paid leave, mean the calls, messages and Facebook posts keep pouring in for Labor Initiatives staff.

Shutdown Hits Ukrainian Workers Hard

Up to 40 percent of workers in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, could end up unemployed due to COVID-19. Gig workers—the informal sector comprises up to 35 percent of Ukraine’s economy—are especially vulnerable, and are not covered under the emergency legislation. Many will continue working through the quarantine, risking their health, without any protective guarantees from their companies.

The coronavirus crisis “showed the giant systemic problems with informal work,” says Sandul. While the government is fining employers $1,700 for each informal worker who lost a job, “informal workers are very vulnerable in this situation because they have no wages,” he says.

Another government move also may make it more difficult for workers to get by. Small employers received a moratorium on their required contributions to the country’s social insurance fund through April 30, along with tax breaks. The new policy may reduce the insurance fund and make it more difficult to pay sick leave and even pensions, says Sandul.

A ‘Tragic Situation’ if Proposed Labor Law Was Enacted

The COVID-19 crisis brings into stark relief the potentially harsh outcome of labor law revisions the Ukrainian Parliament has considered in recent months, one that Sandul and other legal experts say will be back on the table after the pandemic is contained.

“The [proposed] law doesn’t cover OSH [occupational safety and health] at all,” says Sandul. If the proposed law were in place now, “the front-line workers who keep critical services running during this crisis would have no way to protect their own lives. It would be a tragic situation.”

One draft law, still in Parliament, would create an at-will employment system with no collective bargaining in which employees may be fired at the employer’s whim. It has been denounced by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and other global bodies as violating the freedom to form unions. It also would result in short-term individual labor contracts and zero hours contracts; and overtime paid at a fifth of current rates.

“We need to provide people with wages to eat something, literally,” says Sandul. “If this law was passed, Ukraine would be vulnerable.”

Draft Ukrainian Labor Laws ‘A Gift to Oligarchs’

Draft Ukrainian Labor Laws ‘A Gift to Oligarchs’

More than a thousand local union leaders and activists from across Ukraine met today to plan an emergency mobilization to protest draft labor law amendments that would enable employers to fire workers based on any reason, undermining anti-discrimination protections; allow employers to unilaterally terminate employment contracts and set contracts with unfixed work schedules; and drastically reduce overtime pay from a 100 percent to 20 percent premium, in violation of international labor law. A set of proposed amendments to labor and trade union laws would gut legal protection for unions and see the state unilaterally seize union property.

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Credit: Solidarity Center/Tristan Masat

“These laws are a disaster. They undermine the welfare of average Ukrainians, and are little more than a New Year’s gift to oligarchs and corruption,” says Inna Kudinska, a legal expert with Labor Initiatives, a Solidarity Center-supported Ukrainian NGO that provides legal assistance to workers. “Honest business and foreign investment won’t benefit, but average people will suffer.”

Workers have waged protests against the proposed laws for weeks, blocking roads in three towns in the Luhansk region and joining online flashmobs with the hashtags #МолодьПРОТИрабства (youth against slavery) and #НіРабськимЗаконам (no to slave laws).

“The 98 articles of the governmental proposed law, “On Labor,” written by the Ministry of Economy as well as the new trade union law, were drafted without consultation with social partners and expert community,” the global union Building and Wood Workers International (BWI) says in a statement. “The law … further violates Rada [Parliament] procedures, as the body is already considering another labor law.”

Global Labor Movement Condemns Proposed Labor Laws

The global labor movement, including the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), are condemning the proposed laws and supporting Ukrainian workers’ international rights to form unions and bargain collectively.

Ukraine, George Sandul lawyer. labor law meeting, Solidarity Center

“We must resist the adoption of anti-union legislation,” lawyer George Sandul told thousands of union leaders. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tristan Masat

The International Lawyers Assisting Workers (ILAW) network sent a letter to Ukraine Prime Minister Olexii Hohcharuk and other top officials detailing reasons the government must withdraw the proposed amendments—including violation of the Ukraine Constitution—and urging it to consult with unions to ensure any future labor law changes are consistent with International Labor Organization (ILO) regulations that Ukraine has signed.

“There appears to be no possible motivation for these amendments other than to weaken the trade union movement and to eliminate the basic contractual rights of all workers,” wrote ILAW, a project of the Solidarity Center, that includes more than 350 members from more than 50 countries.

“Unions are an integral part of Ukraine’s civil society—they are organic, grassroots-driven activist communities fighting for the well-being of the many,” Labor Initiatives lawyer George Sandul said at today’s emergency union meeting.

“This is why we must resist the adoption of anti-union legislation.”

And even as Ukraine battles widespread corruption, legal experts say the draft labor laws will undermine new anti-corruption whistleblower laws because workers will have no protections from dismissal for reporting corruption.

Draft Ukrainian Labor Laws ‘A Gift to Oligarchs’

Draft Ukrainian Labor Laws ‘A Gift to Oligarchs’

More than a thousand local union leaders and activists from across Ukraine met today to plan an emergency mobilization to protest draft labor law amendments that would enable employers to fire workers based on any reason, undermining anti-discrimination protections; allow employers to unilaterally terminate employment contracts and set contracts with unfixed work schedules; and drastically reduce overtime pay from a 100 percent to 20 percent premium, in violation of international labor law. A set of proposed amendments to labor and trade union laws would gut legal protection for unions and see the state unilaterally seize union property.

Ukraine, labor law protest, unions, Solidarity Center
Credit: Solidarity Center/Tristan Masat

“These laws are a disaster. They undermine the welfare of average Ukrainians, and are little more than a New Year’s gift to oligarchs and corruption,” says Inna Kudinska, a legal expert with Labor Initiatives, a Solidarity Center-supported Ukrainian NGO that provides legal assistance to workers. “Honest business and foreign investment won’t benefit, but average people will suffer.”

Workers have waged protests against the proposed laws for weeks, blocking roads in three towns in the Luhansk region and joining online flashmobs with the hashtags #МолодьПРОТИрабства (youth against slavery) and #НіРабськимЗаконам (no to slave laws).

“The 98 articles of the governmental proposed law, “On Labor,” written by the Ministry of Economy as well as the new trade union law, were drafted without consultation with social partners and expert community,” the global union Building and Wood Workers International (BWI) says in a statement. “The law … further violates Rada [Parliament] procedures, as the body is already considering another labor law.”

Global Labor Movement Condemns Proposed Labor Laws

The global labor movement, including the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), are condemning the proposed laws and supporting Ukrainian workers’ international rights to form unions and bargain collectively.

Ukraine, George Sandul lawyer. labor law meeting, Solidarity Center
“We must resist the adoption of anti-union legislation,” lawyer George Sandul told thousands of union leaders. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tristan Masat

The International Lawyers Assisting Workers (ILAW) network sent a letter to Ukraine Prime Minister Olexii Hohcharuk and other top officials detailing reasons the government must withdraw the proposed amendments—including violation of the Ukraine Constitution—and urging it to consult with unions to ensure any future labor law changes are consistent with International Labor Organization (ILO) regulations that Ukraine has signed.

“There appears to be no possible motivation for these amendments other than to weaken the trade union movement and to eliminate the basic contractual rights of all workers,” wrote ILAW, a project of the Solidarity Center, that includes more than 350 members from more than 50 countries.

“Unions are an integral part of Ukraine’s civil society—they are organic, grassroots-driven activist communities fighting for the well-being of the many,” Labor Initiatives lawyer George Sandul said at today’s emergency union meeting.

“This is why we must resist the adoption of anti-union legislation.”

And even as Ukraine battles widespread corruption, legal experts say the draft labor laws will undermine new anti-corruption whistleblower laws because workers will have no protections from dismissal for reporting corruption.

Protesting Ukraine Miners Owed Months of Back Wages

Protesting Ukraine Miners Owed Months of Back Wages

Coal miners in Ukraine have protested underground over the past 15 days to demand months of unpaid wages after 33 miners at the state-owned Lysychansk coal mines refused to leave from their underground shift.  The miners are demanding wages they did not receive from June to September 2018, as well as for several months from 2015 to 2017.

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KVPU Chairperson Mykhailo Volynets (second from left) visited with coal miners waging an underground protest. Credit: KVPU

While the Ukraine government promised to transfer some of the $10.6 million owed to these miners, Mykhailo Volynets, chairperson of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine (NPGU), said even if this promise is honored, some workers may not be paid. Cleaners and boiler house workers are among those who will not receive any of the funds, although they have also not been paid for four months.

Members of the NPGU held solidarity rallies at several locations in Ukraine’s Lviv and Donetsk mining regions. Across Ukraine, workers at state-owned coal mining enterprises are owed roughly $28.5 million in unpaid wages, and this month the figure will reach $42.6 million as October wage payments are due.

Volynets, a former mine worker, visited the men in the mine this week and said he is “deeply concerned about their health and lives. “These miners show genuine courage and integrity during their struggle for justice and fair payment,” Volynets says.

“The air atmosphere and air humidity in mine are also a point of concern. The miners are in dangerous conditions at a depth of 600 meters (1,968 feet). These people work in such extremely difficult and dangerous conditions, and their wages aren’t high.”

In Ukraine, a skilled miner may be paid as little as $280 to $320 a month. Ukraine has the lowest wages in Europe.

Ukraine miners have received international support with the global union IndustriALL sending miners a solidarity letter and calling on the Ukraine government to immediately pay all wages in arrears.

Ukraine: Rights Ombudsman, Unions, NGOs Fight Corruption

Ukraine: Rights Ombudsman, Unions, NGOs Fight Corruption

Corruption in Ukraine extends beyond the public sphere, seeping across the economy, private sector and individual relationships. To fight it, nongovernmental organizations and trade unions have joined with Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights Valeria Lutkovska to leverage grassroots solidarity work in support of the Ombudsman’s office’s anti-corruption efforts.

Together, the group launched the “Solidarity against Corruption” campaign (more information), which aims to improve legal protections for workplace rights, whistleblowers and freedom of association in Ukraine. The project is supported by the Solidarity Center and partner Ukrainian trade unions.

In 2016, the Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Ukraine at 131 out of 171 countries. Although the report noted progress, including in areas such as procurement, the general environment remains toxic to sustainable social and economic development.

Meeting recently at the Labor Initiative Worker Rights Center, the group shared experiences, mapped activities for 2017 and discussed how corruption is threatening Ukraine’s progress on democratic reforms.

Said Lutkovska: “Creating effective mechanisms for the realization of worker rights, including the right to strike and whistleblower protections, will help the defense of human rights and the development of democracy in Ukraine.”

Broad Alliances Key to Ending Corruption

Mykhailo Volynets, president of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, spoke in support of a systematic approach to the fight against corruption, which he said requires the cooperation of trade unions and human rights activists. “The future of Ukrainian society greatly depends on the success of the fight against the disease of corruption, especially in light of the current political situation and the growing threat of a social upheaval.”

NGOs can take a leading role in the struggle against corruption, but to be truly effective, broad alliances are necessary. Civil society, including mass-membership organizations such as trade unions, can provide key support to institutions that are engaged in building transparency and rights protection.

Tristan Masat, Ukraine country director for the Solidarity Center, told participants that, “without a serious struggle against corruption, especially at the top level, efforts to improve the socioeconomic situation in Ukraine will remain fragile. Every day there are examples of impunity. Reforms cannot take root alongside this top-level corruption. The environment undermines other progress on reforms, especially threatening the public’s faith in government and democracy. We are excited to help Labor Initiative and the Ombudsman’s office in the much-needed effort to broaden the struggle against corruption.”

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