oDR: Opinion

Moves against labour rights reveal blind spot in Ukraine’s reform agenda

Ukraine’s draft labour law tests international commitments to human rights and freedom of association.

Tristan Masat
23 January 2020, 12.01am
Flag of the Independent Union of Railway Workers amid trade union protest in central Kyiv, 15 January 2020
(c) Yuliya Ovsyannikova/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved

Ukraine is in the midst of a new round of reforms. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s party, Servant of the People, swept to victory in 2019, as both a novelty (he is a former comedic actor) and protest vote against economic precarity and the slow pace of anti-corruption reform. Zelenskyy’s government is the first in modern Ukraine to enjoy a sufficient parliamentary majority to govern without coalition and pass laws without allies.

Pragmatically, Zelenskyy’s government understand they have a small time window, as political parties are quick to lose support with Ukraine’s justifiably jaded population. With public urgency, Servant of the People launched a self-described “turbo-mode” of legislating in the first months of their majority. While this process resulted in a flood of passed legislation, detractors and opposition parliamentarians have noted that the Ukrainian government has frequently moved forward with sparse regard for democratic process or civil society input.

Out of the gate in 2020, the Ukrainian government is trying to tackle issues which have, in recent years, proved too controversial to advance in coalition parliaments. These include two areas of law that may impact Ukraine’s democracy and development for decades to come: land reform, and labour and employment law. Legislation lifting a moratorium on the private purchase of farmland is currently attracting domestic opposition and international attention. However, a package of draft labour and employment laws may be more destabilising and could undermine fundamental human rights.

The draft labour law emerged secretively from the Cabinet of Ministers, before landing in Parliament on 28 December. Along with another draft law on regulating trade unions, and a new law on strikes, the proposals chart a course away from workers’ rights and protections. The proposed labour law follows the neoliberal dogma of “flexibility” in employment - that is, the ability of employers to cut jobs, wages and benefits without worker input, all for the stated goal of spurring growth.

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Despite being introduced into Parliament in a holiday rush, the proposals are generating some controversy. The package of laws would diminish trade union and workers’ rights, ease firing of workers (moving Ukraine to be the lone at-will employment country among the 47 members of the Council of Europe), broaden the use of short-term and zero hour contracts, limit the number of unions allowed at an enterprise, and even seize trade union property. While trade unions are mobilising against the laws, the extent to which the aggressive proposals garner broader civil society and international condemnation remains to be seen. This response, or lack thereof, may be a key indicator of the breadth and depth of support for fundamental freedoms in Ukraine.

The proposals have highlighted a central but under-acknowledged challenge to democracy development - the lack of understanding and respect of workers’ rights, economic fairness, and the necessity of freedom of association in the workplace for building and sustaining democratic societies.

“We will seek to create for you, for business, very easy and cheap conditions for hiring and firing, in order to give you opportunities to create more jobs in Ukraine. But this means that we will be a bit of a bully on workers’ rights, and discriminate against them”

Much ink has been spilled on human rights and European norms in Ukraine, especially since the country signed an Association Agreement with the European Union in 2014. However, despite the rhetoric of progress and democratic gain, there is a casual acceptance of extreme economic views which place macro-economic ideology fixated on foreign investment and short-term interests of large businesses ahead of the wellbeing of working people. Relatively speaking, international actors are slow to comment on workers’ rights, compared to freedom of speech or protection of property, for example. The extent to which freedom of association is foundational to democracy is underappreciated.

Especially sobering is how governing party leaders have boldly and publically dismissed human rights in the sphere of work. The Ukrainian Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Agriculture is leading the push for the draft laws, including core Draft Law No. 2708 that remakes Ukraine’s labour law, with support from the ruling party in Parliament. Economic Minister Tymofiy Mylovanov publicly cites labour market flexibility and deregulation as a core goal of the current government, one of his top priorities along with privatisation and land reform. Minister Mylovanov has been actively advocating for the laws, explaining in a social media post that “In the draft law it is enshrined that dismissal is possible simply if an employer desires it.”

The Minister is not alone in his minimalist view of labour relations. The law’s primary advocate in Parliament, governing party MP Halyna Tretyakova, likewise acknowledged that the law pushes the balance of power, commenting to employers: “We will seek to create for you, for business, very easy and cheap conditions for hiring and firing, in order to give you opportunities to create more jobs in Ukraine. But this means that we will be a bit of a bully on workers’ rights, and discriminate against them.”

In addition to the tone of the debate, the process has also been provocative. The current Ukrainian Parliament struggles to adhere to democratic procedural requirements in general, and often simply ignores required steps in its comfort of a large single party majority. The government’s Draft Law No. 2708 is not the first example of a failure to follow democratic processes, but it is a dramatic one on a major issue impacting human rights.

The law’s introduction was arguably invalid, given that Ukraine’s Parliament requires consideration of previously submitted laws on substantially the same topic before new drafts can be filed (with a time window for filing alternates). Draft Law No. 2708 was submitted despite an opposition-backed labour law pending, and was submitted past the allowable time. It was also introduced through a maneuver that allows laws with fewer than 100 articles (it has 98) to proceed along an accelerated path, giving less time for debate and amendments. The sponsors of the law also dodged the legal obligation to consult with trade unions and employers’ associations on significant changes to labour related legislation, another step that was simply not taken.

The list of parliamentary missteps does not end there. Among other arguable violations, the lead committee ignored a process requiring laws be evaluated by several technical committees before consideration. According to the requirements, a given law must be evaluated for its compliance with international obligations, its impact on anti-corruption efforts, and its effect on the budget. Only after the three committees responsible for each of these spheres have provided their conclusions (within three weeks) would the law be allowed to move forward. Again, these requirements were simply side stepped.

Although the Ukrainian government is receiving some push back, so far opposition to the laws is led by Ukrainian and international trade unions. The International Trade Union Confederation and national European, US and other unions issued strong condemnations. What remains surprisingly difficult to guess, is the extent to which international diplomatic missions, donor organisations and broader civil society will defend a fundamental freedom so directly under assault - one in conflict with a zealous view of market liberalisation.

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