Eastern Ukraine: Bosses Tighten The Screw, But Eventually The Screw’s Thread Will Break

From People And Nature an interview with Pavel Lisyansky, a Ukrainian workers' rights advocate.

  • In this interview, PAVEL LISYANSKY of the Eastern Human Rights Group gives an update on efforts to defend workplace rights in eastern Ukraine, as military conflict continues between the government and Russian-backed separatists. Pavel is a trade union activist and humanitarian rights campaigner in towns near the front line with the separatist-controlled territory, which runs through the industrial areas of Donetsk and Lugansk. The interview was published on 2 November in Russian on Nihilist.li, an anarchist web site based in Kyiv.

Question. [Please update us] on two labour disputes: the hospital in Svetlodarsk that landed in a bureaucratic “black hole”, and the shopping centre in Severodonetsk that is trying to force workers to leave their jobs without severance pay. Is there any news about these two episodes? Are you aware of other instances of labour rights violations in recent months?

Pavel Lisyansky. Regarding the hospital at Svetlodarsk. [After a major battle at Debaltsevo in February, the hospital, on the Ukrainian side of the front line, was cut off from the local government administration, which was on the other side. Despite the urgency of the life-saving work of more than 100 staff, they have not been paid for ten months because local authorities failed to resolve the bureaucratic “black hole” into which the payments had fallen.] The government did not hear the voices of the workers. The salaries have not been paid and hospital funding has not been restored.

The problems are the same: winter, cold. But the medical staff do not give up. At a meeting of the trade union committee the members decided to hold protests and organise a walk from the [military – HČ] front line to the regional state administration in Kramatorsk. […]

Pavel Lisyansky with protesting workers at the Amstor supermarket in Severodonetsk. Photo from the Nihilist web site.
Pavel Lisyansky with protesting workers at the Amstor supermarket in Severodonetsk. Photo from the Nihilist web site.

Regarding Amstor [supermarket – HČ]: the employer has adopted harsher tactics and forbade the use of heating in empty premises. [Managers want to dismiss workers, who are refusing to leave until they receive months’ worth of back pay they are owed, and severance to which they are legally entitled.] People have taken sick leave en masse.  […] I also began to receive phone threats. The situation in this instance is more difficult, because in order to fight against such an unscrupulous employer one must set in motion all sorts of workers’ rights mechanisms and levers of influence.

Frankly, it’s difficult to get through a brick wall of labour lawlessness, even together with the whole workplace collective.

Regarding the Elektropribor (Electric appliance) factory in Privol’ie: that was a case of non-payment of wages, but we actively worked there and were able to solve the problem quickly.

There are massive problems for the mineworkers in Ukraine. At each mine there is a different case of workers’ rights being violated. The same thing among public sector employees: at almost every workplace there are violations of workers’ rights. The schools in Svetlodarsk were also affected by the nonpayment of wages, but we were able to help them. There’s a whole list of violations of labour rights, and the instances of these are growing exponentially!

Q. What is the situation at your mine in Lisichansk?

PL. The situation is very near to critical: the wages are being paid, but with delays. We have managed to establish a dialogue with the employer. But here we have to fight with the traditional trade unions, who see me as a competitor, because they use workers as a cash cow to make money. They began an aggressive campaign against me, which is absurd: one group of trade unionists is fighting another, in the meantime neglecting the rights of the workers. I had to leave my job at the mine and settle for an elected post of chairman of the local trade union organisation, virtually as a volunteer – this was the only way I could save the local organisation to fight for the rights of workers.

I actively support all workers employed by the company (i.e. the mine), irrespective of which trade union they belong to. Rights activists, like doctors, offer treatment without asking about political convictions or affiliation to other unions.
But this is difficult to understand for the old guard of the Ukrainian unions; they are used to make money from miners. I know what I am talking about: already at my age I have been employed at nine mines in different regions of Donbas. They [the old guard at traditional unions – HČ] already smell of earth; they have forgotten what workers’ struggle is, and maybe they never even knew it. They do not give way to young, active workers. For them the concept of “young” is someone who is 50-57. This, they think, is the right age to start leading a trade union organisation. There are, sometimes, good people who want to help the young, but they, unfortunately, are unable to go against this system.

This is why I decided to become a workers’ rights advocate – a lawyer for the workers. After all, there are lawyers serving the mafia, corporations, oligarchs – so there should be for the workers. I want to dedicate my strength and energy to defending and protecting workers’ rights, not to fight inside trade union structures about god-knows-what.

Q. Tell us about the case of the illegal dismissal of an employee [at the mine], who was later branded a “drug addict”. How did this situation come about? How was this “addict” treated by his colleagues?

PL. He simply came to be disliked by his boss, so the latter found a reason to do away with him and said he was a drug addict. Then the machine of administrative lawlessness went into motion: the personnel department issued the dismissal order; the security guards, like an unleashed pack of dogs, were set upon him. But the boss did not take account of one thing: this was a member of our union, and we can respond to the administrative tyranny, even by resorting to similar tactics, if necessary. As a result, the worker was reinstated. We consulted and decided to get him transferred to another mine in the same production association, in order to protect this worker from further attacks. Now we are actively working to remove that manager from his post.

Q. Whose situation is worse in the Donbas: the public sector workers (medical staff, teachers, etc) or those who work in the private sector? Who is more likely to be mobilised to stage a protest; who is more motivated? Do the two groups differ in terms of their respective arsenals of methods of struggle?

PL. It’s diverse. If, for example, we are closer to the [military – HČ] front line – it’s the public sector workers; if it’s a bit further from the line – it’s the private sector workers. The situation at the moment is such that it is easy to mobilise all workers whose rights are being violated. They’re simply going hungry. All financial reserves have run out. The prices have risen; the wages are unpaid; the war has instilled a greater sense of indifference toward death, and therefore people feel they have nothing to lose. They need to feed their children – but with what money? This is one of the main factors that helps to mobilise at the moment. And the employers in this environment are like drug addicts. They see that they can tighten the screws a bit more, so they keep tightening to see how far they can go. But this junkie-employer forgets that the thread in the screw will eventually break, the intoxication from the drug will pass, and then he will soberly shudder. But it will be too late.

The arsenal of action is the same for all: protests, letters, lawyers, trade unions, etc. But the people of Ukraine have been entrapped. They have been divided into different unions pitted against one another. Some union leaders have been bought by the state or the oligarchs, and, when necessary, pitted against one another in a different way. The workers do not have their own political representation or lobbyists. And serious human rights advocates are not especially interested in the problems affecting the workers (such work does not receive grants from major donors). So it is, that Ukraine’s workers today are acting like a group of disorganised deserters, tearing in every direction without any sense of what to do.

Q. How much has the situation with labour rights worsened because of the military action? Are there any improvements now, during ceasefire?

PL. In short: no. It has not changed. The situation is still severe.

Q. Tell us a few words about yourself, the Eastern Workers Rights Group, and your plans of action for the near future. Thank you!

PL. What can I say? I come from a family of workers. I’m a fourth generation miner. At the age of 19 I lost my father – the main authority in my life. I have barely recovered from this shock. After my father’s death, the company where I worked with him started to denigrate me, pay back “debts” owed to my father through me. (My dad was a true workers’ leader in Antratsit; this is a well known fact. [Note: Antratsit, which is in the separatist-controlled territory, was the site of worker protests last year. See here]) My dad had, as I now have, many enemies. It was then that I realised that there is nobody else in this life who will ever stand up for me. I went through a moral turning point; I started to fight for my own rights, and to defend other vulnerable people like myself.

Then I was involved in trade union work at the university and, later, at workplaces. I saw with my own eyes the shortcomings of the traditional unions and the lack of any defence of the workers’ rights in Ukraine. I was hugely disappointed in the actions of one of the leaders of the trade union movement in Ukraine (I won’t mention his name) and had a great desire to protect the rights of people in the war zone. That was how in 2014 the Eastern Workers’ Rights Group was set up, in the sadly infamous city of Debaltsevo. The founders of this group are displaced persons and refugees who have been active near the front line in helping to restore and protect workers’ rights, fighting against injustice in the context of war. […] Thanks to Hryćko Čornyj for this translation. 9 November 2015.

Eastern Human Rights Group site: here (Russian only)
More on People & Nature:
Ukraine: workers organise at the grass roots, by Pavel Lisyansky (September 2015)
NUM solidarity with besieged Ukrainian miners (January 2015)
War as a means of social control, by Gabriel Levy (October 2014)
More on line about Ukrainian social and labour movements:
Observer Ukraine (Marko Bojcun’s blog)
Ukraine Solidarity campaign
Ukraine: activist perspective
Paul Canning’s blog

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