“A strike isn’t a goal in itself”: defending labour rights in Ukraine’s gig economy

Recent signs of mobilisation by precarious workers in Ukraine have refocused public attention on labour rights. But with prevailing public conditions opposing worker mobilisation, how far will this movement go?

Hanna Sokolova
26 September 2019, 12.01am
Protest outside Glovo HR office, Kyiv
Source: Sergey Movchan / Political Critique (Ukraine)

Recent protests by delivery couriers have focused public interest on precarity and labour rights in Ukraine. With unbearable and sometimes dangerous conditions, working as a courier is one of the poorest paid jobs out there today. Earlier this year, a Yandex.Eats courier in St Petersburg, Russia died from overwork, and several months later, a courier for the Glovo delivery service died in a traffic accident in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Indeed, much like other precarious workers around the world, couriers at Glovo, a market leader in Ukraine, are now coming out for their rights, including forming a union. Yet the company still refuses to categorise its relationship with its couriers as employment, instead calling them independent subcontractors.

This isn’t unusual for Ukraine’s gig economy, but this worker mobilisation is a sign that things might be changing for the better. Lawyer Georgy Sandul, who works for the Labour Initiatives NGO, speaks here about legalising precarious workers, changing Ukraine’s labour legislation and union campaigns for workers’ rights.

What are Glovo couriers trying to achieve through protests and by setting up a trade union?

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For couriers, the main problem is the nature of their employment. These aren’t workers at a single company, with whom they have employment contracts. In the gig economy, the company claims that its workers are freelancers. Yet these workers have to follow rules set by their company. The company says that workers themselves can choose their working hours, but these hours are still determined according to the company. Moreover, the company issues branded clothing to its workers, as well as delivery bags and cars. All of this looks like an employment relationship which have been camouflaged as contracts with freelancers.

The company is optimising its work, it doesn’t pay tax on employees or social welfare contributions. As a result, workers enjoy zero protection. This is why, across the world, workers in the gig economy are fighting to legalise their employment. Two years, Uber drivers were recognised as employees in the UK. This year, in Spain, Deliveroo riders were recognised as employees, and this decision could influence the work of Glovo and Uber Eats in Ukraine. In Argentina, a fatal accident with a courier led to a ban on all delivery app services.

Footage of Glovo rider protest in Kyiv, Ukraine. Source: Political Critique Ukraine

We’ve spoken with Glovo couriers who decided to set up an independent union. Their first and main task is to legalise their employment. By setting up the union, they declared their intentions. And as far as I understand, this movement will continue to grow. Other precarious workers, such as Uber Eats and Dominos Pizza, will also want to fight for legalising their employment status. This is pretty unique case for Ukraine. These protests are a catalyst for drawing up new legislation that would be able to regulate the situation in Ukraine’s gig economy.

The situation around Glovo has raised the question of precarious workers in Ukraine. When did this class of workers appear and how?

It’s hard to put a specific date on it. In his book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Guy Standing connects the emergence of the precariat with the breaking down of traditional forms of employment. This is the neoliberal turn of the 1980s, and the end of the welfare state. In Ukraine, this began in the 1990s when people didn’t make enough money working one job, and so they looked for jobs on the side and, as a result, ended up working several jobs at once. Now precarious workers are a section of the informal economy, which is hard to describe in numbers. According to various figures, up to 30% of Ukraine’s economically active population are involved in informal labour. In the best case, these people are working short-term civil contracts and don’t know what’s next for them.

According to Article 265 of Ukraine’s Labour Codex, there’s a significant fine for unofficial employment: for every illegal employee, an employer must pay more than 100,000 hryvnya [roughly $4,000]. Yet there’s no effective model of applying these fines. And then there’s the corruption.

George Sandul
Source: Labour Initiatives / Facebook

Employers in Ukraine usually justify their position by saying the state is squashing them with taxes. But once again there are laws, including international obligations which state that employment should be stable. Because many-many people from the precariat don’t realise there’s a problem, and are even proud that they don’t have to sit in an office and are “their own bosses”. Usually these people work in the IT sector, and receive good salaries by Ukrainian standards, but for the western companies they work for they are still cheap labour.

There are good examples from other countries when the precariat organises itself into trade union structures. In Italy, there’s the San Precario organisation, whose symbol is Saint Precario, a made-up protector of the precariat. Workers from different spheres unite around this figure, holding creative protest actions and through them - making changes. There are also Solidarity Networks - associations of people who come together according to their informal employment status. The most important factor for success is the number of people involved. If there’s a movement, you can call it whatever you want, but it’s the number of people that convinces the employer. Threatening to stop work is the tool which precarious workers use across the world.

Now the movement of trade unions for precarious workers is just emerging, but with the spread of non-standard forms of employment it will grow. Employees, even those from different countries and countries, depend on one another. There’s a cumulative effect: if something positive happens, others watch what happens and then use it for their own means.

Could you say that the emergence of a precariat in a country is directly linked to its labour legislation?

Guy Standing defines the precariat as a new class, and thus differentiates between the traditional working class and new forms. This is what the neoliberals say, as if the precariat is something completely new, a product of postmodernity. But in fact these people work just the same as regular employees. The difference is just that the precariat doesn’t have any additional guarantees, given that employers have learned how to optimise their employment processes.

Naturally, a precariat emerges when employers want to get round existing legislation. What’s the difference, for example, between a precarious freelance journalist and a journalist who works for a specific media outlet? The nature of the work? No, it’s how their employment relationship is drawn up. The precariat are also employees, who need to legalise and win back their social guarantees, e.g. a return to the modern society of the mid-19th century.

Do you know of cases where the precariat first emerges as a new class, and then stops being precarious as a result of labour regulation?

No, casualisation is deepening across the world, and the gig economy is stimulating this. Representatives of San Precario and Solidarity Networks are making changes, but these are, for now, local victories. There’s no mass movement yet. Still, the issue of informal employment is brought up constantly at the international level, because this is a threat both for workers and the economy as a whole. This is a question of public finance, and the state is, on the whole, interested in legalising employment.

How has Ukraine’s labour legislation changed since independence?

We’ve actually got some of the most progressive labour laws, it’s another question how the law is implemented. The main document that regulates employment is the Labour Codex, which was passed back in the 1970s. So yes, this really is inherited from the Soviet Union, but we don’t need to refuse all of the Soviet legacy.

There have been many attempts at a new Labour Codex. But the trade unions always came out against it

There haven’t been significant changes in Ukraine’s labour laws over the past 30 years. The fundamental laws on trade unions, collective bargaining and labour disputes have partially changed. But the issue of reforming the labour laws has been manipulated in public discourse for 15 years now. There have been many attempts at a new Labour Codex. But the trade unions always came out against it, because these bills aimed at reducing labour rights and guarantees.

There is a lot of criticism of the last draft Labour Codex (Bill 1658), which was passed by parliament in the first reading in 2015. This bill contains a norm which will foster further casualisation of employment. It permits employers to sign short-term labour contracts - for example, for a month - with any employee in any sphere. This norm violates International Labour Organisation Convention 158, which says that employment should be stable. Employers often say that we need to remove this Soviet provision that you can’t fire an employee without the agreement of the trade union. But we believe that this is a good provision, as it’s another guarantee that a person won’t lose their job without cause.

We don’t know what new Labour Codexes could be drawn up in Ukraine’s new parliament. According to the rules, the first edition of the draft Labour Codex (Bill 1658) should be put to parliament, without the changes later made by a special working group.

What’s your general position on this draft Labour Codex?

It’s enough to say that the ILO’s response to this draft Labour Codex is longer than the draft itself. The ILO believes that this new Labour Codex breaks 59 conventions that Ukraine has already ratified. This includes short-term contracts, and pressure on the rights of vulnerable groups - for example, firing single mothers for general reasons.

The symbol of the Saint Precario organisation, Italy
Source: San Precario / Facebook

After the first reading in parliament, a good provision was introduced to this draft Labour Codex, which shifts the burden of proof in discrimination cases that get to court. Instead of me having to prove that I was being discriminated against, the employer has to prove that they did not discriminate against me. Right now, if a pregnant women applies for a new job and she doesn’t get it, she won’t be able to prove discrimination. The employer will say that he didn’t like her qualifications. We have no precedents in discrimination cases.

The current Labour Codex has an article on missing work: if you don’t appear at work for three hours after you’re supposed to start, you can be fired. The ILO suggests that this time period should be extended to three days, to cover cases where someone falls ill and can’t get in touch with their employer. We should be looking to extend workers’ rights.

There’s an opinion that reducing labour rights leads to economic growth. But in the long-term perspective, it’s the other way round: the more money that workers have, the more goods and services they buy.

Moreover, in the last parliament, a new draft law was drawn up on workplace harassment. Let’s also strengthen the right to strike. If we want to join Europe, then we need to follow their examples.

In your opinion, how interested is the Ukrainian state in regulating employment agreements?

The state’s moves to fight against undeclared work is first and foremost an issue of public finances. Let’s make business civilised, let’s pay taxes. Perhaps, small business should receive some privileges, but the law should be the same for everyone. As we know, large companies often use shadow schemes, whereby officially they pay the minimum wage, but the remainder comes in an envelope. This should be regulated, and this is the state’s area of responsibility.

Let’s be honest: if you ask a post-Soviet person what a union is, they’ll tell you it’s a trip to a sanatorium and a box of sweets at New Year

The Cabinet of Ministers recently passed a new norm on inspections for the State Labour Inspection. Past schemes were, in principle, in line with international conventions. But this new scheme is more business-oriented. If you have an employee with no official papers, then a labour inspector can report you. If the employer fixes the violation, then they won’t be fined. From the point of view of defending the worker’s rights, it’s better to fine the employer straight away. They are, after all, more motivated by money.

Last year, Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy developed a draft law which aimed to deal with informal employment and shadow jobs, when employment relationships are masked as plain civil contracts. The draft law presented criteria for defining whether a relationship amounted to employment: if a person receives the majority of their income by working at one workplace, if they receive payment twice a month, if they spend the majority of their time in a single workplace environment. Instantly, people responded that this draft bill would kill Ukraine’s IT industry. Individual entrepreneurs in the IT industry, who pay a single tax on a salary of $2,000, pay less tax than miners on $400 a month.

The Labour Initiatives organisation runs a legal clinic for workers. Based on this experience, what are the main problems facing them?

The biggest problem is getting wages paid. If you look at the country sector by sector, then the coal industry has a billion hryvnya in unpaid wages right now. In Ukraine as a total, it’s roughly three billion hryvnya in unpaid wages. And this is only for people in official employment. We don’t know what the wage arrears are for the informal economy. There are some positive examples here when it’s possible to get wages paid via court proceedings.

Action in support of labour rights
Source: Labour Initiatives / Facebook

Second in terms of popularity come informal employment situations, unlawful firings and reprimands. Workers also come to us with questions about social welfare. There are many single mothers who have either been fired unlawfully or only get two hours of work a week.

Many trade union issues, for example, are connected with collective bargaining, when a union wants to improve the collective agreement at a company - more rarely, they’re to do with collective labour disputes. People involved in the fight against corruption also need help, if you want to work on corruption, you need workplace guarantees. Workers who live in company towns often want to contact someone about corruption, but they understand that they’ll lose their job if they do, and the company director is friends with the head prosecutor and police chief. The Office of the President recently presented some draft ideas about whistleblowers, and there are some good proposals on labour rights there too.

Which problems do workers tend to stay silent about?

People really don’t know that Ukraine actually has good labour laws, they don’t know their rights. Statistics say that women in Ukraine receive 30% less than men. But few people talk about this. We promote the idea of equality in the labour market. It’s not an issue so much of public calls, but accepting this problem.

In 2017, Ukraine revoked its ban on a number of jobs that women were forbidden to do. Not many people talked about this before the ban was revoked, but after people started getting angry: how is it possible that women weren’t allowed to drive a bus? Because in actual fact women were still doing “banned” jobs, but it was written up different in their work record, and, as a result, they received poorer wages. This practice was widespread in the defence sector.

What are the most successful recent cases of defending labour rights in Ukraine?

There’s a successful case with Nova poshta (“New Post Office”), which has 23,000 employees. Several years ago, some people set up a trade union, and 13,000 workers joined it. Why is this already a success? Because this is the first trade union in Ukraine at a private company this size. Two years ago, workers at Nova poshta signed a collective agreement, which included two extra holiday days for those who work behind computers, and that the employer provides water, coffee and tea to employees. There was also, in separate agreement, a wage rise of 30%.

Glovo riders protest in Kyiv, July 2019
Source: Sergey Movchan / Political Critique Ukraine

Another case involves Ukraine’s Coca-Cola factory. Last year there was a big achievement, a wage rise of 50%. Workers managed to get this by working with the trade union and turning to state institutions. Protests began after the hryvnya collapsed in value, when people realised that before they got $1,000 a month, and now $300, and decided to sort it out. But the factory management understood that if the factory stopped operating, they’d lose billions, and that’s why they opted for compromise.

A recent case involves Kyiv Borispil airport and the holding company that runs ground operations servicing airplanes there. A few months ago, workers expressed dissatisfaction at wages and working hours. They created a union and declared their intention to strike. The situation didn’t get as far as a strike, they received a 10% wage increase and their shifts were reduced from 14 to 12 hours. Now they are drawing up a collective agreement to sort out controversial issues.

The only issue is the lack of publicity for these cases. National TV channels don’t report these events. Striking isn’t an end in itself. A normal people doesn’t want to protest if everything is fine. But if things turn bad, then you can’t do anything but.

Your organisation has been running summer schools for civic and union leaders for five years. What’s the purpose of these summer schools?

For unions to become genuinely influential in Ukraine - as they are in Europe and across the world - you need a regular renewal of personnel. The summer school is where we bring in new personnel, who will then go onto create new organisations or help their old comrades. Many people discovered something new in the process of exchanging information, organising movements and getting wage rises. Many participants went on to become heads of trade union organisations at their own companies.

People come from different sectors: railway workers, healthcare workers, teachers. They understand that they’re facing the same problems, and so we try to build healthy relationships and solidarity, so that people don’t get closed off in their own sector, but understand that if someone is fighting for their rights, then they need to be supported.

Are attitudes towards unions changing in Ukraine?

There’s a positive trend, as trade unions are now more prominent in the public sphere. But let’s be honest: if you ask a post-Soviet person what a union is, they’ll tell you it’s a trip to a sanatorium and a box of sweets at New Year. But we, and our international partners, are working to further people’s understanding that a union is an effective means of defending labour rights.

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