Interview with Vitaly Makhinko of the all-Ukrainian trade union federation ‘Labor Solidarity of Ukraine’. The interview was published on PolitNavigator.net on March 17, 2015. It was translated to English and published on the Fort Russ website. PolitNavigator.net is a Ukrainian, Russian-language website of news and political analysis.
Introduction by PolitNavigator.net: The halt of industry, the depreciation of the hryvnia, the loss of export markets and the collapse of the domestic market has lead to mass impoverishment of Ukrainians and, consequently, to increased dissatisfaction with the current regime.
Alternative parties are incapacitated. However, they are being replaced by all sorts of grass roots community initiatives and trade unions. One cannot yet speak of this it as a strong trend, but it is emerging. According to predictions of observers, the trend will only increase.
In response, there is increasing attention by repressive bodies directed at trade union and worker activists. In a time of war, virtually any social protest – from demands for repayment of wages owed to the battle for jobs – faces accusations in the media of activists working for “enemy agents”. Remember, how [Minister of the Interior (police)] Arsen Avakov’s advisor, Anton Geraschenko denouncing as “Putin’s agents” the protesting employees of Yuzmash in Dnepropetrovsk who were demanding the payment of salary in arrears.
Politnavigator talks to Vitaly Makhinko, the leader of the all-Ukrainian trade union federation ‘Labor Solidarity of Ukraine’, about the current state of the Ukrainian trade union movement.
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PolitNavigator: In his recent speech on the First National television channel, Poroshenko said that 25 per cent of Ukrainian industry is out of work today and ten per cent is physically destroyed by the war. In turn, the Cabinet has downgraded its forecasts for economic indicators this year, allowing for almost a 12 per cent drop in the GDP and inflation over 40 per cent. How close to reality is this data? Are the authorities underestimating or exaggerating the scale of the crisis?
Vitaly Makhinko: It makes no sense for the authorities to exaggerate the scale of the crisis. On the contrary, the impression is that they are looking at the situation through rose-colored glasses. In December, the decline in GDP was predicted at two to 4.3 per cent; today’s predictions are 5.5, 8.6 and 11.9 per cent. What will happen by the end of the year? Our economy has already retracted to the level of the 1990s. The crisis in some sectors has ricocheted onto others. But the worst thing is that the government does not seem to realize the true extent of the economic abyss approached by the country, and it is not taking any steps to avoid it.
The decline is everywhere. Many businesses have closed. Due to the rise of the dollar exchange rate, it is simply not profitable to stay open. Moreover, a significant part of production was focused on the Russian and domestic markets, so under conditions of closings of the first [Russian markets] and retractions of the second, they cannot easily find alternatives.
Most entrepreneurs are now in a “suspended” state and are contemplating whether to stop operations or not.
PolitNavigator: And what should the people do? How to survive?
Vitaly Makhinko: Actively seek alternative or additional sources of income. To stay healthy – the majority of Ukrainians simply cannot afford treatment.
Saving, saving, saving, and a return to the almost natural economy (off the land). Although many have already been living below the poverty line and have no expenses to cut, the issue is basic survival.
PolitNavigator: The government’s forecast for the unemployment rate has also increased. Today we are talking about more than 11 per cent. How close are these numbers to your estimates? What industries are most vulnerable to unemployment right now, and which are in a risk zone and can begin layoffs in the near future?
Vitaly Makhinko: Actually, the number of unemployed is much higher than the official statistics and will continue to grow. Businesses will have more layoffs, leaving only key employees. Wage cuts are rampant and many employees are transferred to half-time, part-time, and remote work.
The only sector where the situation is more or less stable is agriculture. All others are in a risk zone. Layoffs have even affected the food industry, whose products are always in demand. The most massive reductions are occurring in mechanical engineering. Also among [coal] miners and civil servants—usually the lower level civil servants. The most affected industries in addition are those that offer products and services directly dependent on the dollar exchange rate–tourism, transportation, entertainment, services, etc. The former clients can no longer afford their offerings.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming unemployment situation has already led to massive violations of labor rights. We are talking about serious violations – illegal dismissals and non-payment of wages.
PolitNavigator: In the last few months, we have seen a surge of protest activity in the country, associated with socio-economic needs. Teachers are protesting, miners are blocking highways and are protesting at the Cabinet and the Parliament. How big is the role of trade unions in this process? What is the general mobilization potential of the independent trade unions in Ukraine?
Vitaly Makhinko: The trade union movement has enormous potential. In the atmosphere of aggravation of the socio-economic situation, there is a corresponding demand from the Ukrainian society [for union representation]. But the problem is that in our country there are practically no strong, independent trade unions. In fact, there is no one who can lead the protest mood of the workers and guide them in the right direction. The authorities capitalize on that by using controlled “pocket” trade unions trying to take under control the social and trade union movement in the country.
Therefore, protests perform rather the function of a lightning rod. They allow for letting off steam and easing the social tensions in society, while simultaneously curbing the protest movement by heading it. For truly independent trade unions and public organizations, there is an unspoken prohibition of social protests.
Remember when at the end of last year, the whole country was rocked by the strikes of workers of Kievpasstrans [public transit system in Kyiv], after which we were declared “provocateurs” and “saboteurs”? Now such treatment has become the norm. Through their intelligence services, the authorities suppress social protests and the activists are persecuted. So the organization of even the most peaceful protests is dangerous for its initiators. Naturally, the “old” trade unions controlled by the management of the enterprises and the government will not take on this task. The creation of “new” trade unions of the European standard requires a lot of time.
PolitNavigator: How can a trade union help someone today?
Vitaly Makhinko: In the first place – to protect their labor and social rights. The union helps to solve not only labor disputes but also related matters. Whether it is getting aid for a child or protection from real estate fraud. For more than two years, our hot line is actively engaged with qualified lawyers providing assistance to citizens from all regions of Ukraine.
Politnavigator: Do you work with the military? It is no secret that people [military conscripts] are thrown to the slaughter. They are declined the status of combatants and therefore related payments. When people return crippled from the front, it turns out that they were not officially listed as present in the combat zone.
Vitaly Makhinko: In response to the pressing challenges of our time, we created a center for legal assistance to members of the military. It protects the interests of members of the ATO [‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’] and their families.
PolitNavigator: Is it true that the views expressed by many experts that today, after Donbass with its miners, metallurgists and engineers actually fell out from the Ukrainian context because of the war, the epicenter of the protest activity of workers moved to the center and to the West of the country? At the forefront of protesters today we see the miners from Volyn and Lvov. Is this accidental or not?
Vitaly Makhinko: Of course, it’s natural. Worker protests used to occur in the center and in the west of Ukraine – I know this firsthand, because our offices are very active in these regions. But against the general background, these protests were just less noticeable. Furthermore, there are now many more causes for social protest than there was a year ago, so the development of protest movements in all regions of the country is a natural phenomenon.
‘Labor solidarity’ actively works in the Center and West of Ukraine, and also in the capital. Because of pressure from the authorities and security services, we moved our headquarters from Kiev to Kirovograd – to the homeland of the founders of the Ukrainian social-democratic movement, where we have a large number of supporters.
PolitNavigator: What areas of social work is your trade union ‘Labor solidarity’ leading today? Can you name some specific examples?
Vitaly Makhinko: Recently, we were able to solve many problems in different parts of Ukraine. We demanded payments to the employees of Kievpasstrans of more than 100 million hryvnia in payroll liabilities. However, after that we came under strong pressure from security services. Thanks to the support of the trade union, we were able to solve old problems in the sphere of utility services in the city of Dolinskaya, Kirovograd region. To do this, activists together with the inhabitants of the city had to “capture” the city council and force the municipality to finally accept decisions important for the city, before the law enforcers managed to pull up the police squads to the building.
Now there is also a question of protection of ordinary civil servants, whose rights are often violated. Recently, the union through the court forced Novomirgorod Department of the State Land Agency to reinstate an illegally dismissed employee.
And there are many such cases today – every day we solve big and small problems: help people to achieve the payment of wages, to get reinstated at work. Now we are raising the issue of the increase of bread prices. If this essential item becomes a luxury for Ukrainians, the country will not avoid food riots. The rise in price of all goods and services, primarily for basic food items, puts a significant part of the population on the brink of survival.
PolitNavigator: Since March and April of this year, according to the memorandum with the IMF, utility rates will go up by several times. Do you intend to respond to this?
Vitaly Makhinko: An important area of our activity over the past year is the social movement ‘Tariff Maidan’. We fight against the utility mafia and defend the right of Ukrainians for adequate utility tariffs, a decent quality of services. Our actions, obviously, were not welcomed by some influential people, because ‘Tariff Maidan’ in Kyiv was destroyed. The people who introduced themselves as ‘Maidan self-defense’ kidnapped and tortured our activists. Six months later, the police have made no progress in investigating the case.
PolitNavigator: Many experts today are pessimistic about the labor migration abroad as a method of alleviating the problem of unemployment in the country. They say that the EU and Russia have already accepted the maximum numbers of potential workers from Ukraine. So what about those who are left behind? How, in your opinion, does the presence of masses of surplus labor in the country affect the political and social processes? And in what direction?
Vitaly Makhinko: Today, nearly one in three Ukrainians wants to leave the country to work abroad. Some do not see any prospects in their home country. Others want to wait out the crisis abroad. But the need for Ukrainian workers is much less than the supply, which in turn leads to numerous scams in relation to those wanting to work abroad.
Out of despair, people agree to any work, agree to violations of their labor rights, especially in terms of payment of salary. So we recently made a decision to establish a trade union ‘Labor solidarity’ in Poland, which will represent the interests of Ukrainian workers.
Naturally, the increase in the “army of unemployed” will lead to destructive processes in the state and, as a natural result, to social unrest. One way to ‘avoid’ this explosion is to establish a strict dictatorship, which, apparently, the current government is approaching.
PolitNavigator: Can the Ukrainian trade unions today become a unified and influential entity in relations with the authorities? We see that the government is not hiding and quite successfully forcing through Parliament their anti-social initiatives in raising the retirement age, reducing real wages, collapsing of social benefits and cutting pensions to working pensioners. Is there any social dialogue today? Are there negotiations on the new tariff agreements? Or, are all these “remnants of the past regime” completely forgotten and discarded as useless?
Vitaly Makhinko: Unfortunately, we have to admit the impotence of the majority of Ukrainian trade unions which were inherited from the Soviet times. They can’t deal with the basic issues of labor rights and are unable to unite because they depend entirely on the management of companies and the authorities.
The fact that the social dialogue is almost absent raises the degree of explosiveness in the country highly. The authorities make irresponsible anti-national decisions without a debate, and anyone who dares to express their opinion or advise anything, is immediately classified as “[Putin’s] agents” and “enemies of the people”.
PolitNavigator: The big problem of today’s Ukraine is the marginalization of wide sections of workers through the mechanisms of partial employment. Where people work without official registration, part-time and from time to time. Where they survive on small plots of land or something like that. Worldwide, the unions are fighting against this phenomenon. What about you?
Vitaly Makhinko: In Ukraine, there is a tendency to increase the number of “conditionally” employed workers. They work part-time or seasonally, or perform a one-time, piece-rate job. In fact, they have no social guarantees and to defend their labor rights is very problematic. The existing trade unions, unfortunately, completely ignore this issue. Today, we are the only Ukrainian trade union that protects (and quite successfully) the rights and interests of workers who are not officially employed
PolitNavigator: How likely in your assessment in the short term (six months to a year) is an emergence in Ukrainian politics of a political party or parties, based on trade unions as their asset? And what interferes with this process?
Vitaly Makhinko: Now there is a great need for a political force which will defend the rights of “ordinary” Ukrainians – workers, teachers, peasants. We have already gone beyond just the trade union activities and raised a number of social problems on the national level. To find effective solutions, we must evolve into a political force. Unlike the existing political parties, tailor made “for the elections”, we are gradually building up the party structure from below, having a reliable trade union platform, a great experience of self-organization and collective decision making.
Because trade union issues are now quite popular, I do not exclude the occurrence of pop-up, “trade union” political parties, which will essentially be artificial, hybrid entities, exploiting the “trade union” brand, but not able to meet the challenges of our time.
PolitNavigator: What is your forecast for the near future? In connection with the intensification of the crisis and the fall in the economy, will there be a reciprocal process of politicization of the demands of the masses? Or the people will just move away from politics, and all the negative social energy will settle in the suburbs, the suburban and rural gardens?
Vitaly Makhinko: Every day, the number of dissatisfied people increases exponentially, despite the strict policy of the authorities in this matter. The growth of dissent will sooner or later lead to the politicization of the demands of the masses, but the people need to unite around a strong leader, organization, ideas. Therefore, the authorities are trying by all means to put pressure on those who can lead a popular movement, simultaneously trying to substitute their own leaders of various stripes. If there is no unifying core, the energy of popular protest will gradually turn into a deep depression and will only spill into the kitchens and gardens.
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Ten thousand coal miners on strike in western Ukraine, March 24, 2015
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