oDR: News

Ukraine’s government dismantles labour rights during the war

Law radically curtailing labour rights is crucial in face of Russian invasion, say Ukrainian politicians. Trade unions say it’s an excuse for deregulation

Serhiy Guz
18 March 2022, 12.04pm
Key workers in Ukraine are at the forefront of the country's resistance against Russian invasion
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Image: UNIAN. Used with permission

Ukraine’s proposed new law to deregulate labour rights, which the government sees as part of the combined effort to thwart the Russian invasion, has set the administration at odds with the country’s trade unions.

There are fears that the new law, which has been approved by parliament but is yet to be signed into law by President Volodymyr Zelenskyi, could continue after the war is concluded and lead to further exploitative working conditions in Ukraine.

The new law significantly curtails employees’ rights (on working hours, working conditions, dismissal and compensation after dismissal) and increases employers’ leverage over their workforce.

George Sandul, a lawyer with the Ukrainian workers’ rights NGO Labor Initiatives, told openDemocracy that the changes have “shocked trade unions and experts in the field”.

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“Naturally, the way people work has undergone tremendous changes during the war prompted by Russia’s invasion,” Sandul explained. “But those employees who did not lose their jobs are working day and night for the army and the Ukrainian people to obtain victory.

“It is logical that any legislative regulation should serve one main goal: strengthening the defence capability of Ukraine. This bill […] clearly does not serve this purpose, instead it puts a spoke in the wheel.”

Sandul also fears that the new law – which was authored by Halyna Tretiakova, a member of President Zelenskyi’s Servant of the People party and head of the parliamentary committee for social policies and protection of veterans’ rights – will be extended beyond the duration of the war.

‘Any legislative regulation should serve one main goal: strengthening the defence capability of Ukraine. This bill clearly does not serve this purpose’

“There are big risks that after the end of the war, these provisions migrate to peacetime legislative initiatives – as we have repeatedly observed desperate attempts by Tretiakova and other lobbyists to seriously dismantle labour rights in Ukraine,” he said.

As a result of the Russian invasion, hundreds and thousands of Ukrainian business have been destroyed, have stopped work or their workers have been forced to flee from hostilities deep into Ukraine or abroad. Another number of enterprises and employees have ended up in territory occupied by Russian forces, where the implementation of Ukrainian labour legislation has been curtailed.

In addition, many Ukrainian enterprises are involved in defence activities coordinated by local military administrations, and their employees are sent to work that is not covered by regular employment contracts.

More rights for employers

The new law significantly increases the rights of both private business owners and state-run services and institutions while reducing the rights of employees.

If, as a result of the hostilities, a company is destroyed or can no longer function, it can dismiss employees with ten days’ notice (instead of two months) and the payment of one month’s salary.

It will also be permissible to dismiss employees who are on sick leave or vacation (but not if they are pregnant or on parental leave). Employers can increase the working week from 40 hours to 60, shorten holidays and cancel additional vacation days. They also have greater flexibility in hiring employees.

Employers can require employees to do other work not covered by their contract if it is necessary for defence purposes, as long as this work is not detrimental to their health.

One of the most controversial provisions of the bill concerns the ability to involve women in physically strenuous labour and work underground (in mines, for example), which is currently prohibited by Ukraine’s labour laws. This could lead to a violation of the 45th convention of the International Labour Organisation, dating from 1935, which prohibits underground work for all women.

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Image: Vyacheslav Ratynskiy / UNIAN. Used with permission

Another new provision, which concerns the suspension of an employment contract, can be applied “in connection with the military aggression against Ukraine”. This temporarily relieves all parties from mutual obligations but does not terminate the employment relationship. The payment of wages and other guarantees and compensations is assigned to “the State committing military aggression” (meaning Russia), and not the employer.

In compensation, the government proposes to pay 6,500 hryvnia (around £170) to anyone who has lost their job because of the hostilities – but this payment is only a third of the average salary in many regions currently affected by the war. And the process by which employees are to receive compensation from the aggressor country is far from clear.

“Right now, for everyone who still has a job and is working on the home front towards Ukraine’s victory and the viability of the economy, it is extremely important to have at least minimal guarantees on labour rights and, as far as possible, to be confident they will be able to buy bread,” said Sandul. “The deregulation of these guarantees is extremely harmful.”

The new law also gives employers the right to cancel collective labour agreements, and significantly limits the rights of trade unions, reducing their role to one of “civilian oversight” of the new law.

The main right for employees is that, if they are facing a threat of active fighting or are unable to fulfil their duties, they can resign immediately (and do not have to give the 14 days’ notice currently required). But this right can only be exercised if their work is not related to defence or military operations.

Civilian oversight

The bill was adopted by the Ukrainian parliament without being considered by committees or discussed by MPs, but could still be vetoed by the president.

A trade union spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “a joint representative body of trade unions opposed this bill”. He refused to criticise the bill publicly, for fear of reprisals. He explained that, in wartime, trade unions would not oppose the changes, which, he hopes, will be temporary.

However, there are concerns that the bill will be the basis for a more radical transformation of labour and trade union legislation. Several months prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the parliamentary committee for social policies and the Ministry of Economy made equally radical proposals to change labour law in favour of employers, and to significantly restrict the rights of trade unions.

As openDemocracy reported last October, the British Foreign Office was embroiled in a scandal over its advice to the Ukrainian government on how to push new labour legislation through parliament.

The leaked plan, marked with the logo of the British Embassy in Kyiv, noted that the proposed reforms were unpopular and recommended that the Minister of Economy “make its message easier and more emotional” in order to convince the Ukrainian public. With the UK’s support, the Ukrainian government has been pushing for the liberalisation of labour legislation, claiming it would make the country more attractive to investors and tackle informal employment.

20 March: a missing paragraph on the authorship of Law 7160 was added to the article.

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