Vasyl Andreyev is the president of the Construction and Building Materials Workers Union of Ukraine (PROFBUD), which brings together over 60 000 workers.
Despite the advisories from media, health organisations, diplomatic circles and intelligence services, Ukraine was largely unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. To make matters worse, several investigative journalists reported how our state customs service and big business players exported thousands of facemasks and bottles of sanitizer liquid, just days before the government banned the export of medical supplies and equipment. As a result, there was a shortage of personal protective equipment, with many of my fellow Ukrainian citizens buying face-masks in the black market for 10 times the normal price.
The labour sector, particularly construction work, was the first to feel the impact of the pandemic and the quarantine. Even though there was no ban on construction work during the lockdown, massive restrictions and the lack of COVID-19 protective measures weighed heavily on workers. Workers have no access to public transport and many roads are blocked. Special routes are provided only to doctors and police. Workers who are employed in critical infrastructure work (with special permits issued by municipalities) are not provided with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). They also receive lower wages than usual and were asked by employers to go on non-paid vacation leave.
PROFBUD, BWI’s affiliate in Ukraine, understood from the beginning the seriousness of the COVID-19 threat and its consequences to union members and workers in general. Thus, we immediately started negotiations with employers to minimize COVID-19’s negative impact on workers and ensure the stability of enterprises even during temporary closures. Many cement and other building materials plants organised telework options for their office employees and rearranged the operational workers’ work shift schedules.
However, many employers requested to postpone agreed upon salary increases this year even if they are included in collective bargaining agreements. In some cases, negotiations were not enough. Our members started to mobilise to protect their rights and interests.
Two plants that were formerly owned by the Heidelberg Cement group and now owned by a private investor, were the sites of our union’s tough struggle to oppose non-paid vacation leaves. The company agreed to provide workers sixty five percent of their wages for the next two weeks and payment of 1st quarter premium during the lockdown period. All workers who will continue to work at the plant will be provided with PPE and transport service and/or subsidy. Thermal scanners will also be installed at the plant’s entrances.
In another plant, our union filed cases against PROSKO LLC on 25 March for non-payment of workers’ salaries and social security contributions, depriving workers of their pensions and temporary sick leaves.
We believe that the situation in construction sites is very precarious due to the industry’s high level of informal employment. Thus, our union responded by extending our support and assistance to workers, regardless if they have registered labour contracts or not. We also continue to organize a vast network to effectively use legal frameworks and instruments against erring employers, construction sites and contractors.
For example, last April, our trade union members in the city of Lviv appealed to city hall and regional police officials to provide PPE, transportation, masks and sanitizer liquids to all building workers. Our trade union members reported that these demands were met.
Indeed, this is a very challenging time for Ukrainian workers and trade unions. In worksites where workers are not organised, the situation is really alarming; workers are forced to work without any protection from COVID-19, take unpaid vacation leaves and are even laid off without offer of any compensation. The pandemic certainly makes things worse for workers. More than ever, it is crucial for workers to join the union.