The mainstreaming of language and concepts such as ‘liberalisation’, ‘deregulation’, ‘debureaucratisation’ and ‘optimisation’ is the order of the day in Ukraine’s current socio-economic and legal landscape. This trend is especially evident in the Ukrainian parliament (the Verkhovna Rada). Modern draft laws will not contain words like “social justice”, “social dialogue”, or “decent work” in them. These words are considered Soviet-style anachronisms for the most ardent supporters of neoliberalism in these chambers. They shout, “The market will fix all!” Capitalism is just a sober calculation of net profits.
It is these words, ideas that are being used in new legislative acts and administrative papers that are changing Ukraine’s legal framework beyond recognition. A new form of Aesopian Language has been developed in Ukrainian jurisprudence. This language is meant to hide the true meanings of adopted documents as well as their sponsors’ intentions.
Aesop was an ancient Greek fabulist who also told stories. He could not direct criticism of masters through his stories so he used images of animals with the appropriate characteristics. Today, in Ukraine, the government is unable to declare its intention of eliminating the welfare state and the centuries-long gains of workers. Instead, it uses deliberately deceptive language.
Aesopian languages have been used in literature since the late 1800s to avoid censorship. Modern law-making uses it to draft laws to limit the rights of certain sections of the population. It has also been used to prepare legislative acts without any objection from the general public. It is now up to trade unions and other sections of civil society to expose the hidden meanings of these worrying draft laws. The groundwork laid by previous laws was not broken until recently as the development of labour and social legislation took place in Ukraine. As a result, quantitative changes in Ukraine have been transformed into qualitative ones by the mass privatisation state-owned enterprises. This has led to the progressive dismantling social protection.
One of the key reasons for the fall of the social system is the inability of government promote people-centered policies that produce economic growth. Implementing such policies would ensure stability and national unity as well as good cooperation between civil society, government, and civil society. Every successive government insists that there is not enough money and cuts government spending.
The Turbo Liberalization Project
Ukraine is currently one of Europe’s poorest and most divided countries, with a wide income gap between the rich versus the poor. The only way out is to liberalize everything: the economy, labor, and social policy. Each citizen must take care for themselves. Neoliberals assert that no one owes the state anything. Thanks to strong international support, the first attempts at ‘turboliberalisation’ in 2020 were stopped by national trade unions. In the end, the government stopped trying to liberalize the entire labour code and instead focused on specific changes.
But, the liberalization project was not abandoned. They simply regrouped, and Mikheil Sakashvili was elected to the Executive Committee of the National Reforms Council of Ukraine. Saakashvili works with his regional Office of Simple Solutions to help Ukraine “overcome its deadly resistance of the bureaucracy towards the projects we propose” by drafting legislation on legal, tax, as well as labour reforms.
You can see the results of such efforts in draft law No 5371, which was submitted in April 2021. While it may seem to simplify labour relations regulation, the phrase does not reveal its true purpose. The law introduces a new contract regime for workers in small- and medium-sized businesses employing less than 250 people. If the draft law passes, all working conditions are determined by an employment agreement and not labour laws.
As a result, nearly 90 percent of Belarusian workers, despite having high levels of employment are now on fixed-term employment contracts. International Labour Organization (ILO), as well as the international trade union movement, have strongly criticised this autoritarian approach in regulating labour relations. Belarus was thus excluded from the EU’s general system for trade preferences due to its violation workers’ rights.
According to unofficial data, Georgia saw 1.6 million migrants leave the country following the brutal labour reforms introduced by libertarian Saakashvili. This is quite a large number considering that Georgia has 3.7 million inhabitants. The most severe aspects of the labor reforms implemented 15 years ago were only reversed by Georgian lawmakers in 2020.
The importance of respecting workers’ rights in economic development is highlighted during the ongoing discussions on the future work. This was also noted at the ILO 100th anniversary conference. However, many European governments are changing their labour codes to make it harder for workers to enjoy social benefits. France, for instance, has implemented controversial labour market reforms in 2017. These changes changed the conditions of fixed-term contract, the mechanisms to resolve disputes between employers and employees, as well as the amount of monetary damages that can be claimed upon the dismissal of an employee.
While the Ukrainian version was drafted in the spirit IMF and World Bank-inspired reforms, which took place in Georgia 15 year ago, it fails to recognize the need for the state’s creation of an institutional framework that allows for flexibility for businesses and protects workers’ rights in light of the current trends in modern labour markets, such as teleworking, digitalization, and globalization.
Opening Pandora’s box
The authors of these amendments know that these draft laws are not compliant with international labour standards and conceal them behind veiled language. On the 2nd of June 2021 the Verkhovna Rada passed in the first reading the draft law No 3515 entitled “On Amendments To Certain Legislative Acts Ukraine Concerning Settlement of Issues Regarding the Formation and Creation of Prerequisites For Its Increase” This draft law was attached with an explanation note explaining that it is intended to guarantee citizens the constitutional right to a reasonable standard of living. If it is passed, however, it will eliminate the scientifically based definition of a “living wage” as a social norm, which will lead to disruption of all other standards, such minimum pensions, social benefits, and so on. This will impact all segments of society.
The draft law “On the Safety and Health of Workers at Work” is another example. The terminology in this draft law is different from international concepts, especially when it comes to safety and occupational health. This draft law reduces the worker protection level and denies workers their right to receive benefits and compensation for work performed in conditions that are not as safe as the current laws.
In fact, it is possible for workers to lose their patience by restricting their rights to collectively bargain, strike and organize. The result? An uncontrollable, unexpected explosion of social unrest. A further increase in labour migration could be caused by the removal of social security. This is in addition to the five millions Ukrainians who have left to find better work conditions and higher wages elsewhere. Why bring investment to Ukraine when there isn’t anyone to fill the jobs of low quality? Already, in Ukraine, more people are contributing to their pensions than are the pensioners. What next for a nation with 42 million citizens? The guarantee of social security is not a matter merely of principle. It is an issue of national security.