Fighting for a thousand euros in Ukraine’s metal industry

Workers at metallurgical and mining companies in Kryvyi Rih, one of Ukraine’s largest industrial cities, have been holding mass protests since 2017.

Hanna Sokolova
16 May 2019, 9.57am
"We demand European wages". March in Kryvyi Rih, 1 May 2019
(c) Hanna Sokolova. All rights reserved.

“We should be going to Europe for holidays, not work!”

“Metal workers and miners, don’t work for kopecks!”

“Strikes are our weapon - our union is our strength!”

These were the slogans that Kryvyi Rih miners came out with on 1 May, in their march for decent wages and safe working conditions. Roughly 300 people took part in the action in this industrial city in Ukraine’s south-east – workers from the local metal and mining companies, independent trade unionists and activists.

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“Sales volumes allow our employer to pay us €1,000 a month, but they tell us they have no money. You can’t believe that,” Vasyl Paltsev, one of the marchers, tells his colleagues. “There are still not many of us, but I think people will realise that they need to come to rallies and fight for their rights as workers.”

Vasyl Paltsev works as a maintenance mechanic, repairing equipment at the flagship ArcelorMittal mining-metal complex. Like most manual workers, Paltsev earns around $300 a month. This is twice as much as Ukraine’s official minimum wage ($157), but much lower than $740, a new minimum wage calculated by Ukrainian researchers.

“Kryvyi Rih has been a centre of the workers’ movement since the end of the 19th century”

“If I worked in the same job abroad, I’d have a good wage,” says Paltsev. “A third of my work brigade has left since 2017 due to low pay, and some of them travel abroad for work.”

Paltsev is not just unhappy about his pay – he doesn’t feel safe at work. He says that most of the equipment is overworked, but management is trying to save money on maintenance.

Centre of the workers’ movement

“Kryvyi Rih has been a centre of the workers’ movement since the end of the 19th century,” says Yury Samoilov, chair of the local branch of the Independent Mineworkers’ Union. “We even had strikes here in the Soviet years: in the 1920s and 1970s, when it seemed impossible, and in the 1980s when perestroika was beginning. There was a big movement in the 1990s too, which wasn’t driven by unpaid back pay, as in Donbas, but by workers’ demanding higher wages and better conditions.”

(c) Hanna Sokolova. All rights reserved.
Фото предоставлено автором.

Mass protests at the Kryvyi Rih iron ore plant, the Yubileyna mine and the ArcelorMittal mining-metallurgical complex began in May 2017. Miners refused to leave the mines, workers organised rallies, occupying administrative buildings and going on hunger strike. Their demand: a pay rise to €1000 a month. Management eventually caved and agreed.

“Initially they demanded €1,000 for people working in particularly hazardous conditions. Now most of those workers are being paid at that level,” Samoilov tells me. “But people doing other types of work can only dream of such wages – theirs don’t rise above €300 a month. So now we have raised the idea of €1,000 being the minimal monthly salary in the mine and metal sector. There’s also a gender issue: about 30% of the complex’s workers are women, and they are the lowest paid workers of all.”

Maintenance mechanic Vasyl Paltsev took part in rallies at the ArcelorMittal complex. He noticed that the protest mood began to tail off after a section of the workforce received a pay raise.

“If workers kept on coming to rallies, everyone would have a decent pay level by now”, Paltsev tells me. “We could have got a better result.”

Plant management has a habit of outsourcing workers, to avoid being responsible for them

In March 2018, a 25-year-old man was killed when a roof collapsed in an ArcelorMittal workshop. The man worked for a subcontractor, and so he wasn’t legally employed at the plant. According to trade union activists, the plant management has a habit of outsourcing workers, to avoid being responsible for them. Management says that, by doing so, it is “lowering plant costs and increasing economic effectiveness”.

In March 2019 alone, a minimum of 35 workers at Ukrainian companies were killed while carrying out their work responsibilities. Among them was a member of ArcelorMittal staff, who died in hospital a month after being burnt by hot steam. Three of her colleagues were also injured in the accident. This incident was reported by members of Social Movement, a worker-organising initiative, which cited information from Ukraine’s State Labour Service. Moreover, Social Movement states that in the two months prior - January and February 2019 - 43 people died at work. According to trade union activists, these deaths are connected to lack of monitoring on safety equipment.

The March 2018 roof incident – and the death of the young man as a result – became one of the triggers for renewed protest activity. During a rally at the plant’s admin building, workers demanded not only higher pay, but also safer working conditions and an end to the outsourcing of staff.

(c) Hanna Sokolova. All rights reserved.
Фото предоставлено автором.

The courts

In late March 2018, after the rally outside the ArcelorMittal administration, plant workers called a workforce conference. Here, they confirmed their demands, but failed to receive a substantive response from management. In response, they decided to initiate an industrial dispute through Ukraine’s National Mediation and Conciliation Service.

“In a case where negotiations have comprehensively broken down, workers can announce a strike, and management can be accused of breaching labour rights,” explains Vitaliy Dudin, a Social Movement lawyer who represents the Independent Union of Miners of Ukraine in court. He was also one of the organisers of the workplace conference. “Sometimes a company’s management uses negotiations to weaken a strike.”

After the first meeting of the conciliation committee, however, it turned out that ArcelorMittal management had lodged a lawsuit demanding that the staff conference be declared illegal. Judicial proceedings were put in motion; the work of the Conciliation Service was brought to a standstill.

“There have been dozens of similar disputes like this. But this is the first one of this size and the first to be taken to court,” says Dudin. “Here it’s not an employer lodging a complaint against workers, but the workers lodging a complaint against their employer, which is a rare occurrence in Ukraine. People don’t want to work for a pittance and they’re not happy with the safety regime. It’s not a question of a breach of contract, but of the need for improvements.”

“Sometimes a company’s management uses negotiations to weaken a strike”

ArcelorMittal management won their case in the lower court and their appeal, but the National Mediation and Conciliation Service lodged a counter-appeal. According to Vitaliy Dudin, protests in Kryvyi Rih stopped after the conflict entered its legal phase and the company started intimidating its workers. Yury Samoilov, however, thinks the management is just defending its own interests and behaving in the way Ukrainian employers usually do.

“This conflict wouldn’t have happened if the workers had been united,” says Samoilov. “Then the issue would have been resolved very differently – collectively. If the collective has decided, that’s it – one person can’t go against the collective.”

After another fall off in protests in May 2018, workers from ArcelorMittal’s railway workshop initiated action of their own, joining a work-to-rule organised by the independent unions of Ukrainian rail workers.

Video report from Kryvyi Rih depo. May 2018.

In this form of protest, workers carry out their duties strictly according to the rules and refuse to work with defective equipment – drawing attention to the ways that enterprises rely on work outside of official rules and norms. The railway workers demanded safe working conditions, European-level salaries, social benefits and a chance to vote for their leaders. Not one of these conditions was fulfilled, say the union members, and ArcelorMittal only carried out minor repairs.

Exporting iron ores

During the 2017 protests in Kryvyi Rih, the management of metal and mine working companies refused to raise workers’ pay by arguing that profit levels were low. In fact, management was hiding the enterprises’ real income, paying lower taxes by exporting their production through foreign intermediaries.

This subject is covered in a report on tax avoidance and transfer pricing in Ukraine’s metal industry, produced by a group of researchers that included members of Social Movement. The research results were presented to the European Parliament in September 2018.

“When further strikes began in Kryviy Rih, we visited and noticed that managers were exploiting the incompetence of some union leaders in certain areas,”, Zakhar Popovych, one of the report’s co-authors and deputy director of Ukraine’s Center for Social and Labor Research, tells me. “We got involved, did some joint research and discovered that iron ore prices were artificially low. The research results should be able to help the trade unionists negotiate with company bosses.”

All the same, the research results aren’t being used, says Alexander Antonyuk, who headed the research project and represents the left-wing Start platform.

The trade union minority

Kryvyi Rih has both independent trade unions and unions loyal to company bosses, but also an organisation called Freedom of Labour, whose members also claim to defend workers’ rights. This organisation holds rallies and demonstrations, but separately from other organisations.

Social Movement activists and members of independent trade unions believe Freedom of Labour is connected to the Ukrainian ultranationalist Svoboda political party.

“I only want more trade unions, so that they would work in solidarity with one another,” says Zakhar Popovych. “But Freedom of Labour is a rather unusual organisation. It is undemocratic – members have no influence on its politics. But I can’t say that all its members are enemies of the workers’ movement. It’s possible that among them are sincere people who just don’t know who its leaders are and what their aims are.”

For Popovych, the main problem for independent trade unions in Kryvyi Rih is the fact that their members are just a small minority of workers. Meanwhile, employers can exert pressure on any collective that shows a tendency to protest.

“There’s still an element of fear at play in the post-Soviet space. People know they can suffer for saying one wrong word,” adds Yuriy Samoilov. “People are disconnected from one another. This is why it is so important to unite workers today.”

In any case, workers at the metal and mining companies continue their protests. In early March 2019, more than 20 miners from the city’s Zarya pit refused to come up from the mine, demanding a pay rise that would give them up to $1,000 a month. The underground protest was repeated on 7 May, with around 60 people taking part. The miners announced that they wouldn’t return to work until they got an increase in pay. The next day, management promised to make concessions and the miners emerged from underground. But they will only discover whether management has kept their word when they get next month’s paycheck.

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