How the war in Ukraine has devastated the country’s trade union movement – and the lives of workers

How the war in Ukraine has devastated the country's trade union movement – and the lives of workers

Even as the war rages, workers continue to clock in at the ArcelorMittal plant in Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine. For the last two years, the whole of Ukrainian society has mobilised to support the war effort and maintain economic activity. The poster, symbolising the unity of workers, soldiers and the population, reads: “Together to victory.”

(Inès Gil)

“Since the first Russian aggression, we have stood with the workers.” Yevgen Drapiatyi, vice-president of the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (Федерація професійних спілок України, FPU), scrolls through images of the Maidan Revolution on his computer screen. “As early as February 2014, Russia wanted to keep us in its sphere of influence and Ukrainians refused. The Federation actively supported the demonstrators. After that the Russians invaded Crimea and the war in Donbas began. Since then, we have been supporting workers who are the victims of Russian aggression. Following the invasion in February 2022, we redoubled our efforts.”

Located on Maidan Square in the heart of Kyiv, the organisation’s massive beige building is reminiscent of the Soviet era. The Federation was founded in 1990, a year before Ukraine gained its independence. In his office, decorated with objects bearing the likeness of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, Yevgen Drapiatyi wears a jumper with a trident on it, a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism. It serves as a reminder of the patriotism that runs through the Ukrainian trade union movement, which has mobilised for the country and its people. “We’ve set up reception points in western Ukraine for people displaced by the war. We continue to provide them support in Lviv, Rivne, Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia.”

The FPU also distributes financial aid to the families of union members who have been injured or killed at the front. To meet the immense needs of its members, the FPU has received financial aid from European and international trade union organisations, amounting to “127 million hryvnia [around €3 million] in 2022,” and “72 million hryvnia [around €1.7 million] in 2023,” according to the FPU. “Our comrades abroad have also joined together to support us since the beginning of the invasion. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to get by,” says Drapiatyi.

Since 24 February 2022, many Ukrainian trade unions, like the FPU, have benefited from the support of international and European trade unions in the form of fundraising and humanitarian donations. On the second anniversary of the outbreak of war, the FPU reiterated the vital need to continue this support in a joint appeal with the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (конфедерація вільних профспілок україни, KVPU). The war has indeed taken a heavy toll on the entire trade union movement in Ukraine. Before February 2022, the FPU, the umbrella organisation for around 40 unions divided up by sectors, had almost 3.5 million members in the non-occupied territories.

”But between the wounded, the displaced populations, the Ukrainians kidnapped or killed by the Russian army, the closure of businesses in the east and the mobilisation of 10 per cent of our membership by the Ukrainian army, we have lost thousands of members. Many of the buildings of our local sections have also been destroyed by Russian missiles, as in Kharkiv. This prevents us from functioning normally.”

When Equal Times met with KVPU president Mykhailo Volynets in February, he was particularly concerned about the plight of miners in the town of Myrnohrad in Donetsk Oblast. The previous day, a Russian strike had damaged industrial infrastructure, preventing dozens of workers from leaving the mine.

“Some are members of the Independent Union of Ukrainian Miners [Незалежна профспілка гірників України, NPGU] associated with the KVPU. As workers’ representatives, we have to monitor and document their situation, provide them physical and psychological support, and help to repair the damage caused by the bombing,” he explains after interrupting the interview to take a phone call. “Our local representative has just informed me that they have all got out, there have been no casualties,” he says, smiling. Since the start of the Russian invasion, 1,300 KVPU workers have fallen victim to Russian strikes. According to the Confederation, 400 of them have been killed.

The unions are no longer able to talk to their members in the territories currently occupied by Russia, the equivalent of about 20 per cent of Ukraine. “We are trying to maintain contact but it’s dangerous. Moscow is putting pressure on them to join Russian unions,” laments Drapiatyi. Workers in these regions also face violations of their rights, which the International Labour Organization (ILO) denounced in a briefing published in May 2023.

A few kilometres away, in the offices of the Federation of Trade Unions of Small and Medium Enterprises (федерація профспілок працівників малого та середнього підприємництва україни), president Roi Viacheslav expresses alarm for the safety of his members. “Before the war, we had at least 150,000 members. Today there are only 100,000. Employees of small and medium-sized enterprises [SMEs] are more vulnerable to Russian attacks than workers in large factories, and they don’t always have protection in their workplaces.”

Against a backdrop of high-intensity warfare, security has become a priority for employees. Members of the Federation of Trade Unions of SMEs regularly ask for first aid training to prepare for the event of a missile attack at their workplace. Some also ask to be referred for “psychological support,” says Viacheslav. “Helping workers to cope with the war is now at the heart of our activities because we can no longer perform our role as a facilitator of social dialogue like we did before the invasion. The laws passed over the last two years in Ukraine have stripped the trade unions of their traditional prerogatives.”

New legislation threatens workers’ rights

Since the start of the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, has passed a succession of laws that seriously undermine labour rights. The laws passed immediately after the invasion forced the country to adapt to the new context of war. Martial law currently prohibits all demonstrations, though it is not intended to last once the fighting is over.

The laws passed in the summer of 2022, however, could leave Ukrainian employees in a precarious position for years to come. The first of these controversial laws introduced so-called ‘zero hour’ contracts, which guarantee neither job security nor pay. This was followed by law 5371, which exempts workers in companies with fewer than 250 employees from the coverage of collective agreements. It also increases legal working hours in strategic sectors and makes it easier for employers to pay wages late and breach contracts. “This law contradicts Conventions 87 [Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise] and 158 [Termination of Employment] of the ILO,” says Volynets.

“Employers were previously obliged to enter into negotiations with the trade union in order to change the terms of an employment contract. Now they can do whatever they want. It’s a major step backwards,” says Viachesla.

According to Viachesla, who sports a European Union flag pin, these laws – “dictated by Ukrainian employers whose interests are supported by the government” – are hurting Ukraine’s chances of joining the EU. “For several years, Ukraine has made significant progress in many areas to adapt to European standards. But now, at a time when Ukrainians are more eager than ever to join Europe, we’re taking steps backwards. This legislation is totally at odds with European requirements for the protection of labour law.” One example is the right to strike, which could be restricted by legislative amendment.

According to Denys Gorbach, a research associate at the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics at Sciences Po who studies Ukraine’s socio-economic situation, the supporters of ultraliberal policies are taking advantage of the context of war to undermine labour law. “The laws passed in the summer of 2022 are not limited by a time frame, they are meant to remain in force after the end of the war,” Gorbach explains. “They reflect a neoliberal vision promoted by Volodymyr Zelensky and his Servant of the People Party since he became president in 2019. These neoliberals rely on spurious arguments, claiming that the labour code is Soviet and needs to be completely overhauled. While it’s true that the labour code dates back to 1971, it has undergone considerable changes over the decades to adapt to modern times, particularly following Ukraine’s independence.”

More worrying still, according to the European and international trade union confederations, “trade union leaders are subject [to] different investigations, defamation campaigns and intimidation, while trade union offices are visited by state officials, trade union documentation [is] seized, trade union representatives are summoned to interrogations. That distracts and makes core trade union work difficult, if not impossible”.

The priority of war

The war that has raged for the last two years has affected every aspect of the national economy and resulted in the loss of millions of jobs, particularly in the metal and mining sectors, which are mainly concentrated in the east. In the central industrial city of Kryvyi Rih, located 70 kilometres from the front line, ArcelorMittal represents one of the last pillars of the regional economy in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.

Looming over the entrance to the industrial complex, a huge poster depicts a little girl surrounded by a soldier and a metalworker with the Ukrainian catchphrase “Together to victory”. ArcelorMittal, which has operated in Kryvyi Rih since the Soviet era, is the city’s leading steel producer. “One third of Kryvyi Rih’s income comes from taxes paid by ArcelorMittal,” says a proud Volodymyr Haidash, the company’s communications manager. “By helping the local economy, the company is contributing to the war effort.”

In a hangar, a group of workers watch as hot-rolled steel passes through. Thick smoke billows from the machines, escaping through a hole in the roof formed after a Russian attack on the site last December.

“Despite the danger, we work hard, we help to bring money into the coffers of the state and ArcelorMittal,” says Oleksandr, a metalworker. “So our wages should keep pace with inflation, because we can no longer live decently.”

The metalworkers’ and miners’ union, whose offices have been located on the ArcelorMittal site since the 1930s, has started negotiations to increase wages, which, according to union president Natalya Mariniuk, “haven’t been raised for two years, even as inflation has soared by more than 35 per cent following the Russian invasion”. The union is also seeking a 13th month bonus pay, which was “unilaterally abolished by ArcelorMittal in 2023”. While Mariniuk seems optimistic, KVPU’s Volynets urges caution: “The unions inherited from the Soviet era are close to the government, and they claim that there is still social dialogue in Ukraine.”

At a summit held on 23 April in Lublin, Poland, Ukrainian trade unions and their European counterparts addressed the issue of restoring social dialogue, as well as the role of trade unions in discussions on the future and reconstruction of the country. Ukrainian trade unions thus continue to receive international support in their exchanges with political leaders in Ukraine and the EU.

According to Volynets, improving working conditions in Ukraine requires “an end to Russian aggression, membership in the European Union and a vote by the Rada on new laws that respect workers’ rights”.

This article has been translated from French.