Workers in Ukraine could see their rights and job security severely threatened if a draft labour code is passed, trade unions are warning.
Although civil society was not consulted on the proposed reforms, draft law no. 2983 “On State Registration of Legal Entities and Individuals – Entrepreneurs and Community Groups” is currently being considered by Ukraine’s parliament and is expected to be passed into law later this month.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has expressed alarm over the draft law, saying that if adopted, it would “introduce changes to the existing legislation on trade unions and their activities inconsistent with the relevant international labour standards and the legal obligations of Ukraine”.
For Mikhailo Volynets, chairman of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KPVU), the implications of its ratification are clear:
“They believe if they turn workers into slaves they will get [a] cheap labour force”.
He says employers are trying to attract investment from Europe by reducing wages but labour costs in Ukraine are already low in comparison to much of the continent with a minimum wage of 1218 Ukraine hryvnia (US$55) per month.
There are also particular concerns around how the proposed reforms will affect female workers. A number of articles in the draft labour code aim to lift the current restrictions on single mothers working overtime or night shifts. However, Volynets is concerned that employers could use these articles to fire single mothers more easily.
For example, if a single mother has a child with special needs, the draft allows her to work overtime but Volynets fears that refusing overtime could be used as grounds for dismissal.
Vitaly Dudin, a legal analyst with the Center for Social and Labour Research, says that while there are already anti-discrimination laws which could be applied to prevent women from being unfairly treated in the workplace, the proposed labour code is still problematic.
“We should not adopt the [draft] labour code which consists of [about] 400 articles…it will be more bigger than the current code and of course it becomes bigger because of new mechanisms of exploitation”.
Sergey Kondriyuk, deputy head of the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU), says his union also opposes the draft labour code in its current state.
“Our position is quite tough on this question. We are against [limiting] the rights of single mothers”.
Instead, Kondriyuk says, labour reforms should address issues of late payment and improving working conditions. Thousands of employees, many of whom work in unreported cash-in-hand jobs, get paid weeks, sometimes months late because of unscrupulous employers. Many also work under unsafe conditions, such as theillegal mines in the east of the country where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting since April 2014 .
“We should not deteriorate the rights of workers which were not really in a good condition during these 20 years. We should not make it worse,” says Kondriyuk.
Another contentious aspect of the draft law is an article that allows employers to dismiss workers if they violate a non-disclosure agreement.
According to KVPU, the wording is so broad that workers could be fired for simply saying how much they are paid.
It is a similar concern echoed by other trade unions and NGOs – that the ambiguity of articles could be used by employers as an excuse to fire workers without reasonable grounds.
Another part of the draft stipulates that there must be a written agreement of employment between a worker and employer when a job is accepted.
However, Olena Mykhalchenko, a lawyer with the Ukrainian NGO Labor Initiatives, says this article could be abused by employers to institute unfavourable conditions or to give extra responsibilities to employees who are so desperate for work that they will only examine their contract carefully when a problem arises.
But it’s perhaps the elements of the draft which significantly undermine the role of trade unions that are causing the most concern.
For Volynets, the “biggest problem” with the draft labour code is that it gives employers too much power over regulations in the workplace, thus allowing them to avoid collective bargaining agreements.
The draft will also make it harder to form a trade union. Under current rules, unions have to provide three documents when they register – following the reforms that number will increase to 14.
“[It] will take around 30 days to register a trade union,” says Mykhalchenko. “In this period workers will be more vulnerable to harassment and other violations”.
In protest letters sent to the International Labour Organization, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) and Pavlo Rozenko, the Minister of Social Policy, the ITUC described the ratification of the draft law as a “clear violation of Article 2 of ILO Convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise No 87, which defines workers’ right ’to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, to join organisations of their own choosing without previous authorisation’”.
Ukraine has been going through an economic crisis as it struggles to fund the conflict in the east.
This year it is expected to have the world’s worst performing economy as its gross domestic profit continues to nose-dive.
Most of Ukraine’s heavy industries, such as coal mines and metal plants, are located in the eastern region, resulting in a 20 per cent loss in the country’s industrial capacity, according to the government.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is expected to spend five per cent of its annual budget on defense this year – a “colossal” increase according to one Ukrainian official.
At the end of August, Kiev reached an agreement with a group of top creditors to write-down its debt by US$11.5 billion in a bid to help the country avoid a default.
However, Russia, which is also a creditor did not take part in the deal, leaving a big question mark over Ukraine’s economic future. Meanwhile IMF austerity measures, says ITUC economist Carolin Vollmann, will “further economic contraction and contribute to political instability and social injustice”.
Ukrainian workers, 56 per cent of which earn a living in the informal economy according to latest figures, are understandably fearful of the future, which is why campaigners are keen to ensure their rights are strengthened by reforms – not weakened.
“Employees are scared to lose their jobs. So, for example, if the employer says you need to go work on holiday or on [the] weekend… they will give their consent,” Mykhalchenko says. “Without this mechanism of protection they don’t have the real power to negotiate with the employer.”
The current labour code was created in 1971 when Ukraine was still a part of the Soviet Union.
It has since undergone several amendments but while most people agree that the current labour law should be improved, they want the process to be inclusive so that the outcome doesn’t violate “the balance of power between workers and employers [to the benefit of employers],” as Yuriy Kurylo, the vice president of the All-Ukrainian Union of Workers’ Solidarity (VOST), puts it.
“Old doesn’t mean bad,” Mykhalchenko adds. “We’re [not] saying that the code from 1971 is perfect. We’re just saying that… this draft labour code will worsen workers’ rights, workers’ conditions and workers’ positions”.