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Instead of EU principles: Why does the attack on trade unions threaten Ukraine’s European integration?

The Ukrainian Parliament is preparing to adopt a law on the confiscation of trade union property while the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies have arrested a trade union leader. Against the background of statements of the Ukrainian authorities about the progress in the adoption of European integration laws, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen called for “respect for social dialogue”.

The way to the EU: Ukraine says it has done its ‘homework

In 2023, Ukraine is expected to start negotiations on joining the European Union. This task was set by the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to his diplomats on Friday, December 23.

This and a number of other statements by Ukrainian officials may give the impression that overall, Ukraine already meets most of the criteria for EU membership and only needs to make “cosmetic adjustments” – to adopt a number of amendments to the Ukrainian legislation.

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On December 14, the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, Ruslan Stefanchuk, reported that the Parliament as a legislative body had already adopted all the bills demanded by the European Union. However, it is becoming clear that even formally, a number of EU conditions remain unfulfilled: the selection of candidates to the High Qualification Commission of Judges has not been completed, the director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine has not been appointed, the Register of oligarchs has not come into force, the law on television advertising has not been adopted, and the new law on the Constitutional Court of Ukraine has been rejected by the Venice Commission.

Discrimination and copying from Russian laws: neoliberal initiatives of the Ukrainian Parliament in the labor sphere

Alarm bells are also ringing in other areas. One of the priorities of the European Union, according to the Rome Declaration signed by the leaders of the EU countries on March 25, 2017, is the movement towards a “social Europe”. Trade unions play a key role in this process. The trade union movement is often called a catalyst for the formation of civil society. In Europe, it has a long history, while in Ukraine, trade unions independent from party and state bodies emerged with the independence of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the achievements of Ukrainian trade unions are recognized worldwide. In October this year, the Executive Committee of the European Trade Union Confederation decided to admit the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine to its ranks. This is an example of the successful and painstaking work of trade unions – a kind of “accession to the EU”, only in the context of the trade union movement.

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Relations between trade unions and government officials in Ukraine have never been easy. On the one hand, this shows that trade unions in Ukraine are truly independent of state officials. However, in recent years, this confrontation had intensified as never before, when trade unions opposed the neoliberal reforms in the field of labor relations. They were actively implemented by some MPs, among them – the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Social Policy, Halyna Tretyakova. In September 2019, speaking at the forum of the National Business Association in Kyiv, she stated that she aimed to liberalize labor relations in order to encourage businesses to create new jobs in Ukraine. At the same time, she frankly noted: “We will be a bit of a bully on workers’ rights and discriminate against them.

The Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine assessed 35 draft laws submitted to the Parliament that directly affect the rights and interests of workers. It was concluded that 23 of them are aimed at negatively affecting their rights.

In July, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted a controversial law #5371, which deprives some employees of the right to labor protection. For those who work in private enterprises of small and medium-sized businesses with up to 250 employees, the document established a contractual approach for the regulation of labor relations. The legislator allowed the possibility of overtime work, the dismissal at the initiative of the employer without explanation, etc. Some provisions of the document violate the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU (Articles 296, 419, 420).

On September 21, Ukrainian MPs supported another controversial legislative initiative – the liquidation of the Social Insurance Fund through its merger with the Pension Fund of Ukraine.

The explanatory note to the draft law states that it is intended to save up to 2-3 billion hryvnias annually for the state budget. The money will be saved at the expense of employees who suffered from accidents at work or temporarily lost their ability to work (including cases of childbirth or pregnancy). They will no longer be able to receive payments in a timely manner and in full. The law will come into force on January 1. By a strange coincidence, on the same day, in the Russian Federation – a country that is waging a war of aggression against Ukraine – a similar initiative will come into force – to merge the Pension Fund and the Social Insurance Fund into the so-called “Social Fund”.

Such an attack on workers’ rights caused a reaction from the European and International Trade Union Confederation. They expressed their concern in a letter to the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. In response to the letter on November 30, the head of the supreme executive body of the EU said that she had taken the comments of trade unions into account. Ursula von der Leyen stressed that “the compliance of labor reforms with European and international labor standards, as well as the need to promote and respect social dialogue, have been regular topics in discussions with the Ukrainian authorities in recent years”.

Confiscation of property and leader arrest: Ukrainian trade unions under attack

However, instead of social dialogue, the attack on the Ukrainian trade unions has intensified. On 4 November, the Verkhovna Rada adopted in the first reading a draft law introduced by the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine on the actual expropriation of trade union property by the state. In particular, it affects the spacious buildings in the heart of Kyiv – the House of Trade Unions and the October Palace. In addition, the government wants to get the right to confiscate dozens of office buildings, sanatoriums, health resorts and cultural and sports complexes from trade unions.

The government, meanwhile, claims that they plan to accommodate people displaced by the Russian invasion in the seized sanatoriums and hotels, allocating them at least 10-20% of the territory. But, as it turned out, the trade unions have already done it – without asking permission from the Cabinet. The Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine said that since the beginning of the full-scale war, they had put aside 17 trade union sanatoriums, 8 tourist facilities, and about 10 facilities of sectoral trade unions and territorial trade unions – for the needs of internally displaced persons. Some of these facilities are 90% filled with people who lost their homes due to Russian shelling or occupation.

In general, the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine after February 24 provided temporary or permanent shelter to about half a million Ukrainians who found themselves in trouble. The Ukrainian military is also being treated and rehabilitated on the basis of trade union facilities. All this became possible, among other things, thanks to international financial assistance. The International Labour Organization, charitable foundations, trade union centers of Denmark, Israel, Lithuania, Germany, Norway, the USA and France help Ukrainian trade unions to take care of the internally displaced persons. Since the first day of the full-scale war, the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine has sent humanitarian goods and other assistance for the Armed Forces of Ukraine each week, as well as for residents of the frontline regions.

Instead, the “efficiency” of state property management is illustrated by the fate of about 70 objects that were seized from trade unions during the term of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. The former sanatoriums and health centers seized by court decisions are now mostly empty. These decisions have not been revised, despite the fact that in 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the state’s infringement on trade union property was unlawful.

Currently, the draft law on the confiscation of trade union objects is being prepared for consideration in the second reading. By coincidence, on 12 December, a high-profile detention of a trade union leader – Deputy Chairman of the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine Volodymyr Sayenko – took place in Kyiv. The Prosecutor General’s Office suspects him of being the Chairman of the supervisory board of the Kyiv balneological hospital. But they appear to have forgotten to note that such decisions are not made alone. Only collectively – by the entire supervisory board.

Volodymyr Sayenko, Deputy Chairman of the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine

In Ukraine, formally, trade unions own property by the right of private property. What is the illegality of the owner’s disposal of his private property? The fact is that Ukrainian law enforcers interpret the legislation in their own way and declare any property of trade unions “illegally withdrawn” from state ownership.

Volodymyr Sayenko himself called his criminal prosecution “an attempt to destroy inconvenient trade unions, to take away their tools of statutory activity”. In a post on Facebook on December 22, he stressed that while in office, he only performed his functional duties and collegial decisions of the bodies of the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine.

Currently, the Deputy Chairman of the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine is behind bars. He has been remanded in custody and set an unaffordable bail of 124 million hryvnias (almost €3m) to send a message to other trade union leaders to keep their heads down. Prior to his detention, Sayenko was active in the press, criticizing the legislative attack on the social and labor rights of Ukrainians and also the plans of legislators to seize property from trade unions. In particular, he compared the policy of the Ukrainian government towards trade unions with the policy of the Brazilian government under the presidencies of Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro.

Brazil and Belarus: unpleasant parallels

In 2017, a labor reform was carried out in the Latin American country, which made employees virtually powerless and destroyed trade unions. Such changes were designed to overcome the economic crisis by making the labor market “more flexible”. Brazilian President Michel Temer promised that it would help create six million jobs within ten years. In five years, the effect was the opposite – economic decline and rampant unemployment. In 2022, the International Trade Union Confederation ranked Brazil among the ten “worst countries in the world for workers”. Among other things, the 2017 reform simplified the procedure for their dismissal and deprived them of a guaranteed minimum income. At the same time, trade unions, previously partially financed by the federal budget, were deprived of state support and began to cease their activities en masse. The reform was recently evaluated by Brazilian voters: in this year’s presidential elections, the current President, Bolsonaro, was defeated by the former head of state and trade union leader Lula da Silva.

Another example of the destruction of independent trade unions is the actions of Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime in Belarus. In July of this year, the Supreme Court of Belarus banned the activities of a number of trade union organizations, some of which opposed the invasion of Ukraine and called for the withdrawal of Russian occupation troops from Belarus. In recent months, trials of trade union leaders have been regularly taking place in Belarus. On December 20, the trial of the leaders of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions – Aliaksandr Yarashuk, Syargei Antusievich and Iryna But-Gusayim – began. They have been in custody since April, before the court decision. Is a similar scenario to be applied to the Ukrainian trade union leader?

In the neighboring Russian Federation, which is waging an aggressive war against Ukraine, Trade Unions 24 issued a statement in which they declared their support for “the decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to carry out an operation to denazify Ukraine”. After numerous appeals from the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine, the Russian organization was expelled from all respected international institutions.

“Brazilian” or “Belarusian” scenarios are not what the Ukrainian people want and deserve. Ukrainians proved it during the Euromaidan in 2014 when they defended the European vector of development of their country. They also prove it every day now, deterring Russian aggression and protecting both their people and the entire democratic world. It is important for the Guarantor of the Constitution and Commander-in-Chief to pay attention to the actions of some of his representatives that endanger the future of Ukraine, neglecting the European principles of building a state – legal, socially oriented, with a developed civil society.

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