The government’s post-war reconstruction plans threaten a ‘Mad Max-style dystopia’, says Ukrainian labour lawyer.
Draft plans for Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction and fresh remarks by officials suggest that the country’s government intends to retreat from the principle of social dialogue at the policy level. Outlines released by the National Council for the Recovery of Ukraine from the War, a body set up by the president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, state that the Ukrainian government plans to move to a model of ‘non-interference of the state in dialogue between trade unions and employers’ as part of its drive to join the European Union.
Speaking to openDemocracy, the Ukrainian labour lawyer George Sandul said the ‘final goal’ of the draft reconstruction plan was a ‘Mad Max-style dystopia’ where ‘everybody will negotiate on their own without any rules’.
‘These draft plans clearly state that the Ukrainian government is not interested in the principle of social dialogue at all,’ Sandul said, explaining that social dialogue was ‘at the core’ of both International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions and Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU. The Ukrainian state had a mixed record on supporting social dialogue before the Russian invasion and was now ‘trying to get rid of’ its commitments ‘even on paper’.
The war has had a profound effect on Ukraine’s economy, with the World Bank predicting that it will contract by 45 per cent this year as a result of Russia’s invasion. Nearly half of Ukraine’s businesses have stopped or nearly stopped their operations, according to a survey, published in June, by the business consultancy Advanter Group. The draft reconstruction plan says that the unemployment rate is estimated to have risen above 30 per cent, and wages across different sectors have fallen by 9 to 58 per cent.
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International Labor Organization ‘outdated’
The news comes as a leading policy-maker in Ukraine criticised the approach of the ILO as ‘outdated’ on the eve of a planned country visit by the agency which was cancelled. In an interview published on the Ukrainian parliament’s website on 28 July, Halyna Tretiakova, head of the parliamentary committee on social policy, claimed the ILO was a barrier to Ukrainians striking individual employment agreements and protecting their employment rights through more flexible means.
‘People don’t want to negotiate their employment through collective agreements, but through civil law, royalties, author rights,’ Tretiakova said. ‘But the International Labor Organization, created in 1919, in the epoch of industrialisation, says no … [The ILO says] a person is economically dependent on their employer and should therefore come under Ukraine’s labour code, developed in 1971.’
Tretiakova told openDemocracy that ‘international agreements’ such as the ILO conventions were ‘part of our legislation’ but that claims at the European Court of Human Rights against Ukraine for breaches of social and employment rights were ‘snowballing’.
She said: ‘We have to re-examine the obligations of the state, and they have to match the capacity of the state at this specific historical moment. To ensure the number of claims don’t rise, we have to “reset” the labour code and [Ukraine’s] social model, which was not done during the country’s transition from socialism to a market economy. Whether this will require Ukraine leaving some forms of international agreements is a question for the executive branch, which will have to clearly define what we have funds for—and what we don’t.’
The ILO said it had planned an official visit to Ukraine in early August, ‘following an invitation by the government and social partners’. But the agency had cancelled the visit, due to ‘very heavy logistics’ and ‘the prevailing security situation and high-level meetings that were pending confirmation’. All Ukrainian officials had shown ‘genuine interest’ in meeting the ILO head, Guy Ryder, and ‘regretted when the visit was cancelled’.
Mykhailo Volynets, head of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, said the cancellation of the visit had ‘turned out nicely’ for the Ukrainian parliament and government. ‘It would have been very difficult for the authorities to meet with the ILO delegation after the latter’s criticism of recent draft labour legislation,’ he said. The cancellation had allowed the ILO to avoid a public ‘slap in the face’ by the Ukrainian parliament, which has ignored the agency’s recommendations to improve incoming labour laws.
New legislation attacking workers’ rights
Trade unions and business groups in Ukraine are believed to be lobbying Zelenskyy over the new labour regulations, which require his signature before they become law. The law was introduced to parliament by Tretiakova and other MPs, and approved last month. It could move up to 70 per cent of the country’s workforce—employees of small- and medium-sized enterprises—outside the scope of national labour law. The draft legislation has been heavily criticised in the context of an ILO project on ‘decent work’ in Ukraine.
If the legislation is signed by Zelenskyy, employees will be encouraged to strike individual bespoke agreements with their employers, with both sides acting on a supposed equal footing—a direct breach of ILO principles. According to an ILO technical note, the legislation ‘appears to exclude a significant share of the Ukrainian workforce from … the general labour law through the establishment of a parallel and less protective regime’. It will institute the possibility of ‘termination at will’ of employment and ‘unilateral change by the employer of essential terms and conditions’ of work.
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Critics have claimed that deputies in the Ukrainian parliament have used Russia’s invasion, which has displaced millions inside and outside the country, as a ‘window of opportunity’ to pass potentially controversial reforms. Before the war, Ukrainian trade unions organised protests against attempts by the ruling Servant of the People party to cut back on workplace and trade union rights. The draft reconstruction plan names ‘low loyalty of workers to the reforms’ and the ‘active position of resistance taken by trade unions’ as ‘key constraints’ on economic development.
An ‘attractive’ law to ‘simplify regulations’
Ukraine’s Economy Ministry told openDemocracy that it was working on new legislation that would replace the country’s existing labour code, originally written in 1971 and updated on numerous occasions since. The legislation’s aim, the ministry said, was to create an ‘attractive’ labour law that would ‘simplify regulations, minimise state intervention in the regulation of employment and form a system of flexible protection’. Under the future labour code, employees would have the ‘freedom to choose how to organise their employment together with active state control over minimum standards and conditions’.
Tretiakova said that ‘Ukraine itself has an interest’ in ensuring social-dialogue principles are upheld. ‘We don’t need pressure from abroad for this,’ she said, noting that her parliamentary committee on social policy was in ‘constant contact’ with a high-level body connecting Ukrainian trade unions and employers’ associations.
‘For years, unfortunately, the practice of social dialogue in Ukraine was quite inert,’ countered Sandul. ‘But we have it on paper, and that’s just an engine waiting to be turned on.’
This first appeared on openDemocracy