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EU concerned by Ukraine’s controversial labour reforms

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The European Union has regularly expressed concerns about the radical labour reforms Ukraine has been trying to implement since 2020, openDemocracy has revealed. The controversial reforms seek to deregulate what the Ukrainian government considers the outsized role of trade unions in the workplace and excessive red tape on hiring, firing and management. But briefings dating from before and after the Russian invasion show the EU has urged the government to conduct reforms in line with international labour standards and in consultation with trade unions.

European Commission documents obtained through freedom-of-information arrangements expose an apparent divergence between Ukraine’s reforms and the EU’s ‘social market economy’. The findings come as Ukraine seeks to adapt its legislation to EU regulations as part of its candidacy and existing association agreement—a political, trade and economic reform deal designed to bring the country closer to EU standards.

But Ukraine’s homegrown reforms—which are separate from the EU harmonisation process—have been criticised by European and Ukrainian trade unions for breaching workplace conventions set by the International Labour Organization as well as European labour norms. ‘The Ukrainian authorities have made persistent attacks on trade union rights and sought to write them and workers out of the reform process,’ said Jan Willem Goudriaan, general secretary of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU).

Taking advantage of the war

According to a report prepared for a key EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv on February 3rd, Ukraine’s legislation on socio-economic reform is at an ‘early stage’. Experts say the government is taking advantage of the war to pass otherwise difficult legislation dating from 2020 and 2021.

The country is currently under martial law, meaning protest is forbidden. But behind the scenes, EU officials have sounded a critical note on Ukraine’s proposals. Ahead of a high-level meeting to discuss the EU-Ukraine association agreement in 2021, officials were briefed to ‘urge Ukraine to ensure’ that the country’s labour-law reforms were ‘conducted with respect to social dialogue’ and in line with ILO conventions.

That meeting followed months of increasing tension between trade unions and the Ukrainian government in 2020 over a proposed new ‘Law on Labour’ which made a radical break from social-dialogue. After large-scale trade union protests, the draft law was dropped. But the draft law has since been put back on the table, as the government in Kyiv and the ruling Servant of the People party have pushed ahead with labour and social-policy reforms amid Russia’s invasion, which has put unprecedented pressure on the Ukrainian economy and state finances.

Other measures passed by the Ukrainian government in the past year include the introduction of zero-hours contracts and a wartime suspension of collective agreements between employers and trade unions. Parliament has also passed powers permitting the state to confiscate trade union property—despite the fact that the ILO is overseeing two complaints over disputed union property.

Removing protections

One new labour law, first mooted in 2021 and passed by parliament in July 2022 and signed into law in the following months, has come under particular criticism. It provides a ‘parallel regime’ for Ukraine’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)—which employ up to 70 per cent of the country’s workforce—to the national labour code, allowing them to use minimal employment contracts which treat employees and employers as ‘equal sides’ during negotiations.

The law also permits ‘at-will termination’ of employment and the ‘unilateral change by the employer of essential terms and conditions’—both of which breach ILO conventions and EU directives, according to a joint EU-ILO project. A last-minute change, brought about amid pressure from national and international unions, means the legislation, which was drafted without union input, is applicable only during wartime.

Lyubomyr Chorniy, a consultant who was an expert contributor to the law, said the extreme pressures of Russia’s invasion on Ukrainian businesses had made it possible to pass the law: ‘It seems to me there is a window of opportunity now. It’s very difficult for business at the moment.’ To give business ‘some kind of break, there was this idea to pass this draft law’. Chorniy argued that the law actually gave workers at Ukrainian SMEs more—not less—protection over their working hours, rest breaks, overtime and prompt payment of wages, by bringing more people into official employment, and bypassed ‘unjustified’ bureaucracy for employers.

Some Ukrainian politicians have been dismissive of what they see as overregulation of the country’s workplaces—even if regulation is part of the country’s international commitments, as with ILO conventions. Halyna Tretiakova, a Servant of the People MP and head of the parliamentary committee on social policy, has criticised the ILO, claiming its focus on collective rights is a barrier to Ukrainians striking over individual employment agreements, preventing the protection of their employment rights through more flexible means. The United Nations agency, Tretiakova said on February 15th, was ‘pushing the dying theories of Marx and Lenin’ on to Ukraine.

Source: socialeurope

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