There will be no reconstruction without social justice and without strengthening workers’ and trade union rights.
“People, workers and unions in Ukraine have our unwavering support,” said IndustriALL assistant general secretary Kemal Özkan as he opened the two days dedicated to discussions on what kind of country Ukraine wants to be after the war and how it wants to treat its people, incorporating trade unions into the debate as a pivotal actor.
“There is a burning need to address labour and human rights violations. We need to share the realities on the ground and bring evidence to the attention of international authorities, particularly to the ILO. Although it is war time, the voice of workers must be heard internationally.”
“We must also look ahead and prepare for the reconstruction of the country. With trade unions on board, if post-war Ukraine is to start on a democratic footing,” stressed Isabelle Barthès, industriAll Europe Deputy General Secretary. “Massive investment will be needed, and we must be sure that this investment is made based on respect for workers’ rights.”
The tripartite meeting on 13 July brought together 13 trade unions in Ukraine affiliated to IndustriALL Global Union and industriAll Europe, as well as representatives from the ILO, the UN and Ukraine’s government and employers. The trade unions had held an internal discussion the day before with the participation of their national centres, the Federation of Ukrainian Trade Unions (FUP) and the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (KVPU).
Workers’ rights in times of war - testimonies
In emotional addresses, trade union representatives from the mining, electronics and engineering, aircraft, oil and gas, and chemical sectors, described the reality for workers in war-torn Ukraine, experiencing daily bombing of factories, a lack of specialized staff and production stoppages.
Coal mining is crucial for the country’s economy and energy supplies. Union leaders from the mining sector told of a lack of skilled labour as young people have been drafted into the army and others have fled the country.
The health and safety situation in the mines is precarious. Workers mine without adequate personal protective equipment. Dust levels, for example, can be up to three times higher than allowed. As many mines are heavily in debt, social security contributions are not made, making it impossible to fund early retirement for miners despite working in dangerous conditions.
In the occupied areas, Donetsk and Luhansk, the situation for workers is extremely difficult. Information is difficult to obtain as those who communicate with unions outside the occupied territories risk serious reprisals from the oppressors.
But there have been reports of forced Russian citizenship, forced conscription into the Russian army, illegal mines that do not meet environmental standards, women and children forced to work in mines, and flooded mines, which are an environmental disaster.
The two representatives from the UN, Noel Kalhoun and Denise Brown, reinforced how difficult but also how important, it is to gather testimonials of violations.
“It is increasingly difficult to find people to talk to, but we need to do this or else it will be forgotten. We talk to victims and witnesses, on the phone or in person, to establish the truth about what is happening. These reports become part of the UN’s permanent record of what is taking place in Ukraine and are heard in Geneva and New York.”
"Workers' rights are human rights, and these rights need to be protected during war time as well. You can, and you should, help your members report violations of their rights," said Casper Edmonds, ILO head of unit for extractives, energy & manufacturing.
“We need to build the record of what is happening in the areas temporarily controlled by the Russian Federation. The rapes, the killings, the forced labour and violations of health and safety at work and of freedom of association need to be on record so that we can hold perpetrators to account.”
Labour law changes erode workers’ rights
Immediately after the start of the war, in March 2022, the Ukrainian Parliament passed the Law on the Organisation of Labour Relations under Martial Law. This severely restricted the exercise of workers' individual and collective rights.
A series of further laws in 2022 resulted in a massive setback for labour rights in the country, posing a major threat to the foundations of labour relations and, more broadly, to social dialogue. The latter is desperately needed by the country at this very difficult time in the midst of war and occupation.
The bills are a continuation of the so-called reform to liberalise the labour market and deregulate industrial relations in Ukraine. Unfortunately, instead of improving the current Labour Code, Ukrainian policymakers are taking away almost all the rights that workers have gained.
The result is no protection for workers and a race to the bottom for workers in line with the prescriptions of the international financial institutions.
Among the changes is a new law that excludes workers in small and medium-sized enterprises from legal protection through a new "contractual regime for regulating labour relations". Under this law, all working conditions are determined by an employment contract rather than by labour law.
Collective agreements remain in force under martial law but are not respected, and employers can suspend parts of collective agreements without consulting unions. A suspension of payments for recreation and sport has led to a suspension of payments to unions. The budget law prevents wage increases.
“Recent labour law changes in Ukraine are far from international standards. They are harmful and they are wrong. Changes must be advanced through social dialogue,” said Kemal Özkan.
Since the invasion in February last year, around 5 million people have fled the country and Ukraine counts 4-5 million internally displaced. Add to that war veterans, a whole generation of children and teenagers with trauma, 120,000 new disabled people in the first six months of 2023 alone.
Hundreds of thousands of women have taken on a new role, assuming responsibility for providing for their families. However, there is no system in place to care for their parents and/or children, which traditionally have been the responsibility of women.
”The question of post-war reconstruction in Ukraine needs our full attention. How, and by whom, will it be financed? How do we impose social conditions on investments? How are trade unions involved the discussions? There will be no reconstruction without social justice and without strengthening workers’ and trade union rights”, insisted Isabelle Barthès.
Rebuilding the country needs to consider more than rebuilding roads and houses. It must also take into account pensions, retraining and delivering a Just Transition for workers, for a modern economy is not only built on extraction and agriculture, but also manufacturing.
The transition to green energy will be a huge challenge for the Ukraine. New mines continue to open and coal is still the most available and abundant form of energy. Miners in Ukraine need a Just Transition and a vision for the future of coal. The upcoming cooperation project between Ukrainian mining unions and the German IGBCE will be an important learning opportunity. The energy and mining union has a long history of transforming the German coal sector with union involvement.
Trade unions need to start developing their demands to play a role in reconstructing the country, whether it involves macroeconomic or labour market policies. Without voicing their demands, the voices of workers who are playing a crucial role during the occupation will be missing.
Commenting on the recent report on violations of fundamental workers’ rights by IndustriALL and the ILO, Casper Edmonds said:
“If it was not for the 1,200 workers diligently doing their jobs, there would probably already have been a major nuclear incident.”
“These two days have been very fruitful, emotional, and very constructive. Workers need to be at the centre of rebuilding the country,” said Kemal Özkan. “We need to give people a reason to return to Ukraine. Wages and protection must be guaranteed.”