British Meddling In Ukrainian Labor Deregulation

On November 10th, Open Democracy revealed the British Foreign Office is helping the Ukrainian government pass legislation that would severely reduce the role of trade unions in the relations between workers and managers. In response, the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) accused Britain of funding propaganda campaigns to discredit Ukrainian trade unions who oppose labor deregulation laws.

This meddling is part of London’s strategy to expand its influence in Ukraine. British army personnel has already trained thousands of Ukrainian troops since 2015, and Whitehall plans to sell weapons to Kiev for the first time, according to Medium and Army Technology news.

As the EPSU recommends, the International Labor Organization (ILO), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) must support Ukrainian counterparts in their pushback against labor laws that fail to comply with international standards. The Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU) organized protests in early October, but more sustained agitation is needed to persuade Kiev to drop anti-union reforms.

Britain’s subtle intervention in Ukraine’s ongoing labor law debates is not unprecedented. Tom Sibley, former General Secretary at the International Centre for Trade Union Rights, explains that the Foreign Office’s mission during the heyday of the British Empire was to maintain London’s global power and economic interests with brute force. This mission “took precedence over the rights of working people at home and abroad.” Countless Kenyan, Sierra Leonian, Malaysian, Cypriot, and Gibraltarian labourers paid a terrible price for resisting these imperial designs.

Today, the methods may have changed, but the objective (and casualties) remains the same. The Foreign Office, with help from consultancy firms like Mannion Daniels, advises Kiev to implement deregulation policies to attract British companies searching for cheap and disposable labor.

Ukrainian workers cannot afford any alterations to a labor code that employers rarely adhere to in the first place. Vasyl Andreyev, leader of the Union of Construction Workers and Building Materials Industry, argued that builders “work without any rights” and struggle to claim injury compensation because they are employed without contracts. Moreover, a corrupt State Regulatory Service almost invariably sides with employers during labor disputes regarding health and safety issues—resulting in even more workplace accidents, according to Open Democracy.

To make matters worse, Ukrainian employers rely on the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) to pressure and intimidate workers who dare step out of line. A report co-authored by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch alleges that SBU units are involved in the arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearance of numerous civilians in Eastern Ukraine‘s war-torn regions. Victims are supposedly beaten, electrocuted, and threatened with rape or execution in secret SBU facilities. Security services have not, so far, subjected tenacious strikers or outspoken trade unionists to such horrific abuse. Yet, the SBU has put members of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) under surveillance and pursued unwarranted investigations into their activities over the past decade, according to the Central European Labor Studies Institute.

Furthermore, merely speaking out about dangerous working conditions or low wages is enough to draw the SBU’s attention. In 2018, after thousands of metalworkers at the ArcelorMittal plant in Kryvyi Rih attended rallies protesting job cuts and the harassment of labor organizations, the SBU demanded to know everything about the KVPU unionists who initiated the movement. Additionally, the ITUC reported that the SBU ordered mine managers in Donetsk to gather information on independent trade union activists. A nurse named Nina Kozlovska even received a letter from the SBU after venting on Facebook her frustrations about the lack of masks available for healthcare workers, according to Open Democracy. There is a real risk that Ukrainian authorities, driven paranoid by hostilities with pro-Russian secessionists, will continue to equate peaceful labor protests with seditious uprisings.

Trade unionists Grygorii Osovyi and Vasyl Shylov noted in Equal Times that dismembering social protections will exacerbate widespread poverty and lead to violent unrest throughout Ukraine. This outcome must be avoided at all costs. Civil disobedience on a massive scale, buttressed with international solidarity, must convince the Ukrainian government and employers that robust labor laws are keys to an orderly and prosperous society. Foreign powers like Britain should have no say in a sovereign nation’s labor code.