Ukrainian government risks opening ‘Pandora’s box’ to workers

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“With a single letter [our employer] fired us and our dialogue turned into a monologue,” says Anton Gorb, a union representative at Ukraine’s largest private postal service, New Post.

Gorb is currently serving in the Ukrainian armed forces as the country fights against the Russian invasion. But he still represents the interests of his union members and manages to find the time to talk to me about how Ukraine’s wartime labor laws affect people in the country.

“We’re not going to give up, we’re trying to win something back, but our relationship with our employer can’t be fixed anymore,” Gorb says.

In March, Ukraine’s parliament passed wartime legislation that severely restricted the ability of unions to represent their members, introduced “employment suspension” (i.e. employees are not fired , but their work and wages are suspended) and gave employers the right to suspend collective agreements.

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This, explains Gorb, is what happened at New Post (Nova Poshta), once a flagship of good working relations between Ukrainian trade unions and management.

But beyond this temporary measure, a group of Ukrainian MPs and officials now aim to further “liberalize” and “de-Sovietize” the country’s labor laws. Under a bill, people who work in small and medium-sized enterprises – those with up to 250 employees – would, in effect, be excluded from the country’s labor laws and covered by contracts individual negotiated with their employer. More than 70% of the Ukrainian workforce would be affected by this change.

Amid concerns that Ukrainian officials are using the Russian invasion to push through long-awaited sweeping deregulation of labor law, an expert has warned that introducing civil law into labor relations risks open a “Pandora’s box” for workers.

Under pressure

“We had one of the best employers in Ukraine and a good collective agreement,” says Gorb. “But now employers have turned their backs on social dialogue. We thought it was because of the start of the war, then it turned out that they were waiting for the law to be passed.

New Post’s independent trade union organization is one of the largest of its kind in Ukraine. Prior to the Russian invasion, the union had over 11,500 members (out of approximately 30,000 employees) and its first collective agreement was signed in 2016.

Antoine Gorb

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But in April, as part of Ukraine’s wartime suspension of certain labor rights – which was described as “temporary” – New Post management revoked 30 points of the collective agreement with the union.

Most of these points concern the coordination of working conditions with the trade unions, but also certain social guarantees, such as the provision of uniforms to workers, the availability of a first aid kit at the workplace, working hours work and others.

In a recent interview, the company’s director of operations, Yevhen Tafiychuk, said 1,500 employees had had their jobs “suspended” under wartime legislation – meaning they didn’t have been made redundant, but are not currently working or being paid.

This, Tafiychuk explained, was due to a sharp reduction in freight turnover in the early days of the war and the closing and bombing of some of its branches. Some staff, for whom there was no work at the time, were put on reduced salaries, he said. “It’s official procedure, and we paid all salaries according to the law,” he said.

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