Eastern Ukraine: “We need new ways of organising”

Amid military conflict and industrial collapse in eastern Ukraine, activists are feeling their way towards new models of worker organisation. 

Gabriel Levy
5 August 2017

Lysychanskugol miners waiting outside Ukraine's energy ministry during negotiations last month.In eastern Ukraine, factories, steelworks and mines, whether in government-controlled or separatist-controlled territory, have shut down, gone on short time, or laid workers off on reduced pay. Military violence has hastened the shift from steady employment to precarity. Workplace-based trade unions have struggled to cope.

The Eastern Human Rights Group (EHRG) — a lawyers collective that gives support to individuals, workplace collectives and community groups — is working with other activists to set up territorially-based workers’ organisations that will embrace employed, unemployed and precariously employed people in the region.

Some of the largest factories just stopped paying wages, and thousands of workers are owed six months’ back pay or more, Pavel Lisyansky of the EHRG said in an interview. “In these circumstances, people of course start looking for another job. Then the management doesn’t pay them the back pay that they are owed. Why settle up with them, if they are leaving?

“Nobody is interested in defending such workers’ rights,” he added. Trade unions, traditionally industry- and workplace-based, and close to management, are indifferent to such workers’ problems. “And it makes no sense for that worker to hire a lawyer independently; the cost might well be as great as the back pay he is owed.”

This could be the beginning of the end for Ukraine’s old post-Soviet trade unions — not only the old “official” unions, which originated in quasi-state Soviet structures, but also the post-Soviet “independent” unions set up to compete with them

Lisyansky reckons this could be the beginning of the end for Ukraine’s old post-Soviet trade unions — not only the old “official” unions, which originated in quasi-state Soviet structures, but also the post-Soviet “independent” unions set up to compete with them. Indeed, membership is falling: a worker who has been ignored at his time of need in his old workplace is unlikely to sign up in his new one.

In response, the EHRG is working to establish territorially-based organisations, provisionally called “working people’s unions”, that will bring together all workers — at any workplace or none — in a particular locality. This will be “a sort of alternative to trade unions […] to address the need for additional instruments for defending people’s rights in Ukrainian society.”


Pavel Lisyansky of the EHRG, which is funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the German Consulate in the Donetsk region. Source: Facebook. “The principle of solidarity is being lost,” Lisyansky continued. “If there are two workplaces, near to each other, that both build up debts to their workers, both groups of workers will stand a better chance of success if they join together.”

The EHRG has pursued claims for back pay by workers who were effectively abandoned by their unions at some of the largest workplaces, including the Severodonetsk Azot chemical plant, whose 5,000 workers are owed six months’ wages; Lysychanskugol coal company, with 5,000 employees at four pits; Toretskugol coal company, with 2,500 employees at four pits; and the Donetsk railway network. Workers have protested with strikes — and, at Lysychanskugol, with an underground sit-in and lobby of the energy ministry — and cases have been taken up by the EHRG and some union officials.

Until the military conflict erupted in 2014, the Donetsk and Lugansk regions were Ukraine’s industrial heartland, accounting for about one-tenth of overall economic output, and a larger proportion of iron, steel, metallurgical products and chemicals production.

Now Russian-backed “People’s Republics” have been formed in both regions, and the front line cuts straight through what used to be a highly integrated industrial complex. Supply chains have broken down, even between factories owned by the same companies. A trade blockade, initiated earlier this year by Ukrainian nationalist politicians and then taken up by Kyiv, has made things worse, leaving power stations short of coal.

Wartime militancy: the practicalities

The immediate impulse for the EHRG’s formation — on 27 July 2014 by a group of lawyers, themselves internally displaced persons, at Debaltsevo — was “the large number of breaches of human rights in the area of military operations”, Lisyansky told me. He had himself had spent the previous decade in independent trade union organisations.

The EHRG set up four offices to provide civil liberties advice and support, but those at Debaltsevo and Uglegorsk were destroyed after Russian-backed separatists took control of those areas. Since January 2015, the group has been based at Lysychansk, in the part of Luhansk controlled by the Ukrainian government. There are smaller offices at Toretsk and Svitlodarsk.

“The military activity is quieter, but hasn’t ended by any means. People live in a state of permanent stress. Shots and explosions can be heard at all times, the whole region is militarised”

On top of the campaigns over back pay, Lisyansky believes the EHRG can count as one of its successes the release from prison in the Lugansk People’s Republic of Aleksandr Yefreshin, who had fallen into a legal no-man’s land. In 2013, Yefreshin was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years for his part in the theft and burning of a minibus — a drunken prank. He began to work in prison, under a scheme that allows sentences to be cut by two-thirds for those who do so. But with the outbreak of war in 2014 he found himself in a separatist prison where Ukrainian law did not apply, and detainees were effectively used as slave labour. The EHRG, after publishing a report on the slave labour scandal in October 2016, was instrumental in securing Yefreshin’s release in March this year.

“Not a day goes by without people asking for help [from the EHRG’s lawyers]”, Lisyansky said. “Just recently we restored pension payments for a girl who lost her father, a miner, but [the pension fund] didn’t want to pay her a pension, although the law requires that they do so. There are many, many similar cases.”

On the Ukrainian side

In response to my question about how ordinary people in the frontline areas are faring now, Lisyansky said:

“The military activity is quieter, but hasn’t ended by any means. People live in a state of permanent stress. Shots and explosions can be heard at all times, the whole region is militarised, there are soldiers, weapons, checkpoints everywhere. So people are desperate, they hardly even think about day-to-day problems, they just want the war to end. [The factories are open, but people don’t get paid, the back pay debts keep growing, but] people don’t go out and protest, because the law enforcement agencies immediately accuse them of trying to destabilise the situation in the region.”

I asked Lisyansky about the opposition by community activists to the railroad blockade inspired by right-wing nationalists earlier this year. There was very little support for the communities, he replied:

“It was only us, and a group of trade unions and community organisations in the localities who spoke out against the armed right-wing radicals. We said no [to the blockade] emphatically, and called for people to sit and negotiate [to allow trade links to continue]. A storm of criticism and threats was unleashed against us. I was accused a puppet of bandits who were against the ‘Ukrainian patriots’ [who started the blockade]; some of my co-thinkers were simply threatened. But the state supported the blockade nonetheless, and that put industry in eastern Ukraine on its knees. In the territory not under Ukrainian government control, many of the factories laid off workers and stopped paying wages. The separatists implemented ‘nationalisation’ of factories belonging to the Ukrainian state, and those are now in a mess.”

The EHRG has participated in a widespread protest against pension reforms being undertaken by the Ukrainian government at the behest of the IMF. The reform will strengthen the link between the level of contributions and what people receive, and effectively raise the statutory retirement age, by increasing the term over which a person must contribute from 15 to 25 years. Lisyansky said: “Yes, I spoke out and will keep speaking out against this reform, which I think breaches people’s rights.” Both “official” and independent unions had protested, but this had had “little effect” on the political process, he said.

Like other worker activists, Lisyansky is also concerned about the labour law reform now under discussion in parliament. “This will give employers one more instrument to use against workforces. It is another means of driving working people into a corner. I think it may cause a general protest movement across the whole country.”

In the separatist-controlled areas

I asked Lisyansky, who maintains contact with worker militants in the separatist-controlled areas, about reports that living conditions there are very bad. He commented:

“Yes, they live in very bad circumstances. There is no law, no rights, people are defenceless. A person can be arrested for some contrived reason, for having a different political position, for insisting on his rights, because he competes somehow with someone [in power]. In the prisons [in the separatist-controlled areas] there is real slavery. Completely arbitrary rule. … It makes me sick that this is happening in the place that I come from. I cannot return there. I am on hit lists, and if I went to the so-called ‘Lugansk People’s Republic’ [LPR] I might just be shot. I very much want to visit the grave of my father, who was a workers’ leader – but I haven’t done so for three years. I worry a great deal about this.”

There are no trade unions [in the separatist controlled areas]. There are just some structures designed to win international influence, to legalise those republics. Did you hear of any trade union protests in the LPR? I know of very small-scale protests that were put down by the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ [DPR]’s armed forces. […] The level of pay is going down, up to 60% of the workforce has been laid off in the factories. They are either closing all together, or temporarily. New trade unions have been formed at these enterprises to control workers. It’s painful to answer these questions.”

Looking forward

The EHRG, like many civil society organisations in Ukraine, relies on funding from western Europe. Lisyansky said:

“We are carrying out several projects on human rights that are supported by the German consulate in Donetsk region and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin. Support from these international donors is very important for us. In the first case, with the consulate, we run an integrated human rights project that includes monitoring breaches of human rights, offering legal advice, and the running of events highlighting human rights and organising to defend rights. In the second case [with the Rosa Luxemburg foundation] the project is directed at legal education for workers, trade union activists and leaders, and legal officers in trade unions in eastern Ukraine. […] We hope that by raising the level of legal understanding among ordinary people in this way, that we can resist the attacks on labour rights and social-economic rights.”

EHRG’s strategy is to develop legal advice and representation, to develop human rights defence organisations; to continue to monitor breaches of human rights in the areas where military conflict continues; to support the rights of internally displaced persons; and to develop conflict resolution in communities.

It’s clear that the EHRG, and other activists struggling with the consequences of the military conflict, need solidarity and support — over the long term — from other workers’ organisations in Europe. Lisyansky has made some links with German trade unionists and asked me, through this interview, to offer his hand of greeting to workers’ organisations elsewhere.

Ukraine is not so far away. If international solidarity means anything, it means building relationships with organisations such as this.

How has the war in the Donbas changed Ukrainian society? Check out Kateryna Iakovlenko's essay on the "disconnected society"

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