Ukrainian Workers Assemble to Oppose Government Attacks on Labour Laws

The government of Ukraine has proposed further attacks on Ukrainian workers in the form of sweeping changes to labour laws that were set to be voted on in parliament on May 25th. The Ukrainian labour unions and activists did not waste time, responding with demonstrations against the legislation on May 21st.

Demonstrations were organized all across the country including the cities of Kyiv (Kiev), Simferopol, Sevastopol, Uzhgorod, Rivne, Lugansk, Kirovograd, Kharkov, Odessa and Lviv. A group of 500 labour activists in Kyiv marched from the central square to the Ukrainian Parliament building. When they got there, they found out that the legislation had disappeared from this week’s agenda for discussions in parliament. This was despite the fact that only a few weeks earlier a leading official for the rulingparty, Oleksander Efrimov, stated that these were “the perfect conditions to pass this legislation”. The demonstrations were successful in postponing the vote, but for how long it is not clear.

The proposed labour code is unprecedented in its attacks on the labour rights of Ukrainian workers. If passed, employers would be given the right to change regulations in the place of employment by the issuing of decrees at any time. The allowed unpaid trial period for employees would be doubled from 3 to 6 months. This is happening in a country with many reported instances of workers being hired for 3 months and being let go without pay just before the 3 month trial period ends, as having failed the trial period; all this being completely legal! There are further provisions to reduce the legal consequences for employers that violate the few remaining workers’ rights. The new code would increase the maximum working week from 40 to 48 hours. This working week could be made even longer by the employer depending on whether the worker is allowed breaks during the workday. The maximum workday would also be increased by 25% from 8 to 10 hours. This has echoes of 1906 Tsarist Russia when the reactionary regime removed limitations on the work day and week, along with most other labour laws, after the failed 1905 revolution. This is how far back in time the government is willing to take laws protecting Ukrainian workers!

The proposed code furthermore attacks the remaining labour organizations, who were not consulted in the drafting of these new laws. The law introduces a new definition of a “representative” union, which is one that represents at least 3% of the industry in question, with the definition of “industry” being open to interpretation. The “non-representative” unions would not be party to collective bargaining discussions or receive social benefits from the employer such as health insurance. Cases of an employee inflicting damage on company property, or disciplinary procedures, are put at the discretion of the employer, without provisions for intervention by the employee’s union. Furthermore, termination of employees could occur without the consultation of the union in the new code.

The current labour code that is in place in Ukraine today dates back to 1971 and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The old code was mostly preserved by Ukraine after its independence from the Soviet Union. The years leading up to, and after, Ukrainian independence have not brought better conditions for the vast majority of Ukrainians. This period has been marked by increasing unemployment and major cuts to infrastructure and public services. The rampant privatization of Ukrainian industry in the 1990s, which was encouraged by the United States and the European Union, has bred a class of super wealthy owners (known as oligarchs), who took over state assets for next to nothing and left the country in a very precarious condition economically. The 1990s were also marked by the assassinations of many journalists reporting on the illegal privatization, political corruption and the rise of the mafia culture. Many politicians and administrators at both federal and local levels also met a similar fate. Many of the privatizations have also resulted in mass layoffs and attacks on conditions for the workers that managed to keep their jobs. The people benefiting are clearly visible in Ukrainian society, as many of them compose the Ukrainian parliament. The current president Viktor Yanukovich, for example, is a multi-millionaire from the Donetsk region, who came into office in 2010. He represents the Party of Regions, which is backed by several other Donetsk region oligarchs who also sit in the Ukrainian parliament.

First among these is Rinat Akhmetov, who has been referred to in leaked United States diplomatic cables as “the godfather of the Donetsk clan”. He is the richest man in Ukraine and the 39th richest man in the world according to Forbes. He is the owner of several media outlets, a football club and has amassed a fortune by taking over former state industries including metalworking, power generation, real estate and mining. The coal mining sector in the Donetsk region has some of the worst safety records in the world. Another Party of Regions representatives, former Prime Minister Yukhim Zvyahilsky, is the owner of the infamous Zasyadko coal mine, which from a period of 1999 to 2007, experienced seven major accidents resulting in a combined total of 296 worker deaths and left many more with serious permanent injuries.

The “Donetsk clan” is however only the most powerful group among a system of oligarchs that rule Ukraine. The so called “Orange Revolution” in 2004 was a large organized demonstration against the fraudulent elections that originally declared Viktor Yanukovich as president. A repeat election in 2005 brought Viktor Yuschenko to power, who was seen at the time as the figure to bring Western European style democracy to Ukraine. The reign of Yuschenko was a period of continued economic liberalization which brought no real improvements to the lives of ordinary Ukrainians  while the oligarchs (many also financing and present in Yuschenko’s party) continued to enrich themselves. The controversial sale of the Kryvorizhstal steel plant to a number of investors with close ties to the previous president (including then president Leonid Kuchma’s son-in-law and Rinat Akhmetov) was overturned, only to have the company put up for auction again and sold to Mittal Steel in 2005. Since the sale, Kryvorizhstal, which was one of the leading steel manufacturers in the world and a large source of revenue for the government, has seen its production consistently decrease. In addition to this, the 55,000 strong workforce was reduced to 37,000 by 2011, with Mittal announcing plans to further decimate the workforce to 15,000.

With Yuschenko firmly discredited in the eyes of the Ukrainian people, Yanukovich was elected as president in the following elections in 2010. It was a closely contested 2nd round of elections with fellow former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who made her multi-million dollar fortune speculating on the Ukrainian gas sector in the 1990s. The programmes of the two candidates were strikingly similar, with pro-business policies at the top of the agenda. The candidates also consistently re-affirmed their intentions to move towards EU integration while maintaining close relations with Russia. The major policy difference between the candidates was the insistence of the party of Yanukovich of including Russian as the second official language of the state. Tymoshenko’s populist rhetoric against this change gave her much support in the historically Ukrainian nationalist west. On the other hand, the popular support of Yanukovich and the Party of Regions lies in the east and south of Ukraine, historically areas with more Russian speakers. The language question has been used by the oligarchs on both sides to divert public anger at the deterioration of the country away from the people responsible and divide the workers.

The Communist Party of Ukraine, while having some base among the workers, especially the older retired ones, deserves neither the adjective Communist nor Ukrainian. The Communist Party led by Petro Symonenko has recently joined a ruling coalition with the Party of the Regions. They also deny the existence of a distinct Ukrainian identity in a county where 77.8% of people consider themselves Ukrainian according to census data. This is coupled with the revisionist Holodomor denial (man-made famine by the Stalinist regime in the early 1930s) and defence of Joseph Stalin’s legacy that is common among the other remnants in the communist parties of the former Soviet Union. Their entry into the coalition government shows that they prioritize the ideas of Russian Nationalism over Marxism, Leninism or defending the rights of workers.

The situation of the Ukrainian people has only been getting worse since the start of the recent economic crisis. State statistics show a drop in industrial production by 34% last year with the domestic Hryvna currency plunging nearly 60%! Many banks have given up lending with some even failing to return deposits. The official unemployment figure stands at 8.5% with a further 3 million people expected to lose their jobs this year. Millions of Ukrainians have gone to Russia and the European Union in search for better paying jobs, this trend having already started in the 1990s. A staggering 8% of Ukraine’s GDP comes from overseas remittances. However, with the economic downturns in these countries, it is becoming more and more difficult for Ukrainians to find decent work over the border.

The proposed new labour code serves to worsen the situation for Ukrainian workers domestically, as they could be used to work without pay for up to 6 months under the new proposed trial period. The labour organizations left to protect the workers, are not only hit with the economic realities of plummeting industrial production, butalsotheir ability to legally defend workers’ rights. The smaller independent labour organizations also face an existential threat as “representative” labour organizations under the law. The economy is not likely to benefit either as working people will be entitled to less and less money to spend on goods and services to keep the already feeble economy going. Ukraine’s ability to attract foreign investment is also reduced, with the economic crisis and the over-saturation of products on today’s markets.

The proposed labour law has given new purpose to labour activism after the disappointments of the “Orange Revolution”. Demonstrations on May 21st against the change in the labour code have shown the power that the workers still have, despite the sometimes public perception of “unbeatable” owner-politicians. The movement actually began on May 14th when a coalition of left groups and unions announced the joint demonstrations against the proposed laws.

It is likely that the ruling coalition has decided to wait until the uproar over the proposal dies down and will attempt to move it again at a later time, perhaps after the parliamentary elections this October. It is also possible that they will try to reach out to some labour leaders in order to work out a “compromise” reform ofthe labour code. What is vital is that the Ukrainian labour organizations stay vigilant and do not agree to any compromises that will hurt the workers’ interests. It is important to remember that it is the lower classeswho suffer the most in an economic crisis, due to cuts in basic services. At the same time, Ukrainian owners continue to enjoy one of the highest profit rates in Europe.

Labour movements across the world should be encouraged by this moment of success for Ukrainian workers. Ukrainians more and more understand that they can no longer count on the existing political parties to change their corrupt and inefficient governmental system. The leading candidates are almost all multi-millionaire business people who often send their kids to private boarding schools in Western Europe. One has to ask the question, how much of a shared interest could they possibly have with the Ukrainian working class? The ruling oligarch class counts on the apathy and division of the Ukrainian people to stay in power. History has shown however, that people can only tolerate so much from the ruling class before they start to organize against the regime. Ukrainians have shown this when they helped overthrow the brutal Tsarist regime almost 100 years ago and when they formed a 300,000 person chain across the country in 1990 to show support for independence from the Soviet Union. Independence on a Capitalist basis has, however, not solved the problems of the Ukrainian masses. Now is the time to make Ukraine a country for its people and not for the oligarch clans. Ukrainian labour has had seen a measure of their own power, now is the time to use build a party of the labour!

  • Power to the Ukrainian workers in their fight against the taking of the labour laws back over a century!
  • Down with the oligarch clans who have controlled Ukraine’s economy and politics since its independence!