Along with Russia's full-scale invasion which is unforgivable, Ukrainians are facing another threat: Since March 2022 workers have also experienced a full-scale attack on the labour rights. Establishing decent labour conditions in accordance with international standards, as well as developing effective state policy on the protection of labour rights, must become the cornerstone for guaranteeing both national security during wartime and the physical availability of a workforce for post-war reconstruction. The war cannot be used to justify stripping workers of their rights.
Systematically undermining worker’s rights: Suspension of employment contracts
In March, at the very start of the war, the Ukrainian parliament passed a new law ‘On the Organisation of Labour Relations During Martial Law’, which unfortunately meant that certain extreme forms of liberalisation of labour rights became a legal reality. This law, in fact, contained very few provisions conducive to strengthening the defence capabilities of the state during a war. However, it did include several provisions which fundamentally undermined the labour rights of those who had been working at the frontlines since the start of the invasion. In particular, the proposed ‘suspension’ of the employment contract. According to this concept, employees are not formally dismissed, but in reality, no longer work for or receive a salary from their company. By allowing employers to unilaterally cancel the provisions of collective agreements without justification this law destroyed the foundations of trade union work. Such laws became the unpleasant reality for hundreds and thousands of people, actively fighting for democratic change in their workplaces. Employment relations began to be suspended for no reason at all, even in companies of strategic importance for the defence of Ukraine.
Systematically undermining worker’s rights: No obligation to pay average salary for mobilised workers
Another scandalous legal provision was the law ‘On Amending Certain Legislative Acts of Ukraine on Optimisation of Employment Relations’, adopted in July 2022, which released employers from the obligation to pay an average salary to employees mobilised for the defence of their country.
Systematically undermining worker’s rights: Reduced rights for workers in small and medium-sized companies
In addition, in summer 2022, the Parliament passed a law substantially reducing the labour rights of those working for small and medium-sized enterprises (up to 250 employees). This law established a separate regime to regulate labour relations in these enterprises, where an individual employment contract was defined as the main document regulating labour relations. In other words, the workers had to personally negotiate all the specifics of their employment directly with the employer. Yet labour law was created precisely for the collective protection of workers because it is impossible to effectively negotiate all employment terms and conditions with massive corporations and the like.
The struggle for workers started before the war
Institutional failure to effectively protect labour rights was common in Ukraine even before the war. The lack of due justice and the attempt to paralyse the labour inspectorate in defiance of the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) had led to impunity for unscrupulous employers even in peacetime. Ukraine was renowned, for instance, for a large degree of informal employment: in 2021, according to various estimates, one in five Ukrainians worked in the informal sector, with no employment rights and no safeguards.
Ensuring a decent life for every employed person in Ukraine needs a common front of governmental institutions who must be aware of their social function, employers focused on retaining labour during and after the war, and trade unions who must drive not only the protection of existing but also the achievement of new rights for wage earners.
Establishing decent labour conditions in accordance with international standards, as well as developing effective state policy on the protection of labour rights, must become the cornerstone for guaranteeing both national security during wartime and the physical availability of a workforce for post-war reconstruction. The war cannot be used to justify stripping workers of their rights.