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Lawmakers attend a parliament session in Kiev, Ukraine December 21, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

(Kyiv) – Ukraine’s parliament is considering draft amendments to the country’s trade union law that, if adopted, would impose serious and unjustified restrictions on workers’ rights to freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said today. They would also violate Ukraine’s international commitments to uphold labor standards.

In a July 16, 2020 letter, Human Rights Watch urged members of parliament to withdraw the draft amendments and ensure that any future measures affecting trade unions not only respect domestic and international labor and human rights standards but help bring Ukraine into full compliance with those standards.

“This draft law would erode workers’ rights to organize and weaken trade unions,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Trade unions are fundamental to voicing workers’ interests in Ukraine, and the government should protect their right to organize and bargain collectively.”

On May 27, the Parliamentary Committee on Social Policy and Protection of Veterans, the lead committee on the draft amendments, recommended sending the amendments to the full parliament for a vote. The vote is pending.

If adopted, the draft law would violate Ukraine’s commitments under the Association Agreement with the European Union (EU), Human Rights Watch said. The EU should ensure that Ukraine fulfills its commitments under the agreement, including the obligation not to weaken or reduce labor protection under its laws in the hope that it will encourage trade or investment.

In a July 27 reply to Human Rights Watch, the committee’s chair, Halyna Tretyakova, did not engage on the specifics about non-compatibility of the amendments with international human rights and labor law, however said that the committee supports the development of the trade union movement in Ukraine and creating conditions for effective protection of the interests of unions and their members. The letter also said the committee is “united in the position to ensure Ukraine’s compliance with obligations under the [Association Agreement] as well as in ensuring that Ukraine’s labor legislation complies with Ukraine’s obligations under International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions.”

One of the draft law’s provisions would limit the number of primary trade unions permitted in an enterprise to two, restricting the possibility for trade union pluralism. Another envisions automatic transfer of all property that was in trade unions’ possession as of August 24, 1991, when Ukraine declared independence from the USSR, to state ownership without judicial overview or due process.

Another provision interferes with trade union management autonomy, requiring each union to create a “supervisory committee,” elected from among its members or non-members.

Under one of the draft amendments, unions that include people who have some supervisory duties but who are not necessarily part of management, could be excluded from collective bargaining.

It is hard to reconcile any of these provisions, if adopted, with Ukraine’s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said. They would also violate important international labor and human rights standards enshrined in ILO conventions. They would also violate other human rights treaties to which Ukraine is party, in particular the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the European Social Charter (ESC), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its 2020 concluding observations on Ukraine expressed concern that the draft amendments, if adopted, would weaken trade unions, resulting in violations of art. 8 of the ICESCR. It urged Ukraine to “review the draft law ... with a view to ensuring the effectiveness of collective bargaining and of the right to union representation.”

In a July 17 letter to the Ukrainian government, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association said that “several provisions [...] if approved, might be incompatible with Ukraine’s obligations under international human rights law and standards. In particular, they could jeopardize the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of association in the workplace.”

The draft law also falls short of Ukraine’s commitments under the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Under that agreement, Ukraine is obligated “to promote and implement internationally recognized core labor standards,” including freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.

In a letter to IndustriALL Global Union, a senior official with the European External Action Service said that the EU was “closely monitoring the situation with labor reform and will raise this issue in close cooperation with the ILO during the bilateral dialogue with Ukraine in the framework of the Association Agreement.

The draft law has drawn serious criticism from multiple international and local stakeholders, including the International Lawyers Assisting Workers Network (ILAW Network) and IndustriaALL Global Union. Both groups urged parliament to withdraw the draft.

Labor Initiative, an independent Ukrainian group, identified other provisions of the draft law that seriously restrict trade union activities. These include provisions that increase to 10 the minimum number of trade union members, eliminate automatic trade union dues collection, weaken an employer’s obligation to provide collective bargaining information to trade unions, and deprive trade unions of the opportunity to submit proposals for draft laws before the executive branch of government could consider or submit them.

Several parliamentary committees also criticized the draft. On July 2, the Committee on European Integration said that the draft law contradicts Ukraine’s commitments under the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement (EUAA), the European Social Charter, and several ILO conventions. The Committee on Anti-Corruption Policy said that certain provisions of the draft law do not meet the requirements of anti-corruption legislation.

“Weakening trade unions threatens decent labor conditions for Ukrainian workers,” Williamson said. “Ukraine’s parliament should take a stand for workers’ rights and Ukraine’s commitments under international law by withdrawing these draft amendments.”

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