Spotlight interview with Roman Kravchyk (FPU-Ukraine)

Curtailing the exodus at home and ensuring better protection abroad

"Curtailing the exodus at home and ensuring better protection abroad"

Somewhere between three and seven million Ukrainians live and work abroad. The vagueness of these statistics speaks volumes about the largely underground nature of the migration flows. Backed by an example of good practice, Roman Kracvhyk of the international department of the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine insists on the need for greater cooperation between trade unions in sending and receiving countries.

Migration is one of your organisation’s key concerns. Last November, during the founding Congress of the ITUC, your president’s intervention was mainly centred on the stakes surrounding migration. What is the scale of this phenomenon?

According to our Employment Ministry, three million Ukrainians work abroad. Other statistics, from two years ago, set the figure closer to seven million. These figures come from the report of an Ombudsman, a post set up by the Parliamentary Human Rights Commission. What we do know for sure is that only a tiny minority of Ukrainian migrants are residing in the destination countries on a legal basis.

What are the stakes to which your organisation refers?

First of all, the legal framework is inadequate. Legislation aimed at facilitating the procedures for people to work abroad exists, but it is ill-adapted and totally ineffective. To give an example: there is a law concerning the establishment and the workings of employment agencies, which are intended to regulate migration flows, but it is estimated that only two percent of the people leaving the country use these official structures, which are terribly opaque and bureaucratic. It’s no wonder that people choose to keep paying intermediaries who use illegal but much more efficient channels. In addition, Ukraine has not ratified the two ILO Conventions 97 and 143 concerning migrant workers. How can we expect other countries to respect the rights of our nationals living and working on their soil when we have not even signed the two main international legal instruments on the matter? The issue of migration has really become a priority within our organisation over the last four to five years and we have specialists working on the subject. Based on the reports they have drawn up, our last Presidium, in September, decided to step up our efforts. We decided to place maximum pressure on the government to ratify the two Conventions without delay. We also want the authorities to involve trade unions in the negotiations with host countries as well as in drawing up effective policies to regulate migration. Several bilateral agreements have already been signed. Our involvement would ensure greater consideration for social aspects. We also want to broaden our relations with unions in the receiving countries. It’s a strategy that pays off. Thanks to our good relations with Portuguese trade unions, for example, we have been able to get involved in the bilateral talks between the two countries. The Portuguese Foreign Affairs Minister listened to what we had to say, which is by no means insignificant. Our number one priority in this type of negotiations is to promote the rights of our nationals. We also stress the importance of regularisation programmes, family reunification and the recognition of qualifications. We also want to strengthen our cooperation with the ITUC and NGOs working to help migrants.

Organisations like La Strada?

Exactly. This NGO has, for a number of years, been doing remarkable work to help the victims of human trafficking. Migration can give rise to all kinds of human rights violations, but trafficking is one of the most revolting aspects of this phenomenon. In spite of the national awareness raising campaigns, many women continue to let themselves be taken in by the lies of intermediaries who lure them with the promise of respectable jobs in the West. But once over the border, they fall into the hands of criminal networks, are stripped of their identity papers and freedom, turned into slaves and forced to work as prostitutes. The magnitude of this scourge was once again brought to our attention when, at the onset of the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, thousands of young Ukrainian women had to be evacuated from Lebanon. No one, not even they themselves, knows how they ended up in Lebanon. We want to take part in the flight against human trafficking, but it has to be said that this issue is new to us. As regards La Strada, for example, we try to meet with them as often as possible and invite its members to our workshops dealing with gender related issues. But it’s only a beginning, we hope.

Could you give an example of a good practice in the area of international trade union cooperation?

Yes. One of our affiliates, the Union of Agri-Industrial Workers (AWUU), signed a cooperation agreement with the United Federation of Danish Workers (3F) last May. It all relates back to a concrete case that was brought to our attention a number of years ago: that of two Ukrainian students who were working in the Danish agricultural sector and being underpaid. The Danish federation, 3F, took the case to court and the two students won the case. The employer had to compensate them for the amounts unpaid, in accordance with the wage regulations in force in Denmark. The two organisations, aware that this was not an isolated case, decided to cooperate. They have published a brochure in three languages (Ukrainian, Russian and English) aimed at Ukrainian agriculture students, who are given an opportunity to do placements in Denmark. The brochure provides them with an explanation of their rights and obligations. This initiative also forms part of a trade union recruitment strategy. As members of the Union of Agri-Industrial Workers of Ukraine, the young people who go to work in Denmark automatically become members of the 3F for the duration of their placement. They enjoy the same benefits and protection as regards wages, working hours and social security (illness, pregnancy, etc.). The brochure also gives the details of the people to contact in case of workers’ rights violations. It is, obviously, a remarkable agreement and we would like to conclude similar ones with trade unions in other countries. We are also working on a project with an Italian trade union, the CISL, on the opening of regional offices where migration candidates could seek information on the job opportunities in Italy and their rights and obligations. They would not be employment agencies as such, but we could use trade union expertise to filter decent work opportunities.

Aside from these initiatives, what is the most global demand being made of trade unions in the receiving countries?

We are asking them to press their governments to regularise the status of migrants. The vast majority of Ukrainians living and working in these countries have no legal status. With no visa, work permit or employment contract, they are at the mercy of the most unscrupulous employers. The kind of tasks they are given mean that they are more exposed to accidents at work than the other workers. We see this as a very urgent matter. Society as a whole benefits from their presence. They are there, they work, they are useful, so why not regularise their situation for everyone’s benefit? It has to be said, however, that the underlying problem we are struggling with on a daily basis is the standard of living in Ukraine. The best way to curtail migration is not by enforcing ever-tighter border controls but by creating decent jobs in the countries of origin. Two years ago, our new president committed to do everything in his power to create a million jobs a year, with a view to curbing emigration. Today, we are still very far off the mark, and the exodus is continuing.

Could one still talk of a brain drain?

The expression is no longer really appropriate. We would rather use the term “brain loss”. When our graduates leave, they most often have no alternative but to take on unskilled jobs. In Russia and the European Union, they are often employed as construction workers, domestics, etc. It’s a loss for society as a whole, a waste of resources. It’s a vicious cycle. During the early years of our independence, our education system was still well reputed but, little by little, our teachers, university lecturers and researchers have been leaving to work abroad, because of the low wages here. As a result, the quality of our schools has fallen. Reforms need to be introduced to bring us up to date with the Bologna Process (1). But salaries need to be increased too, otherwise young people will continue to opt for more advantageous career paths. At present, the average salary in Ukraine is around 200 US dollars a month, but for teaching and medical staff, especially in rural areas, it doesn’t surpass 75 USD. That’s why there’s a shortage of teachers and doctors in our country.

Ukraine is also a transit country for migrants. Has this led to a rise in xenophobic sentiment?

It’s true that significant East-West migratory flows cross our country. Many nationals from Asian countries take flight to Western Europe for either political or economic reasons. We all know that the conditions under which they take this journey are often extremely perilous. Unscrupulous people smugglers cram twenty or thirty people in to their vehicles, like animals. For many of these migrants, the hopes of a better life are broken at the eastern border of the European Union, in other words, at our Western border. Since our independence in 1991, around a hundred thousand illegal migrants have been turned back in this way. A portion of them live in Ukraine. They often work on the markets, in networks, and don’t mix much with the rest of the population. Foreign students from Iran and Arab countries attend our universities. Some of them decide to stay in Ukraine after their studies. But migration to Ukraine should be looked at in relative terms. The country is estimated to receive thirty thousand migrants each year, mainly Moldavians who come to work in agriculture. But the Ukrainian population, in fact, remains relatively homogenous. I think that racism and xenophobia are still quite rare. Having said that, we are pressing the authorities to ratify the two ILO Conventions concerning migrants, to ensure that Ukraine also guarantees the rights of the migrants living here. Finally, we have decided to include a specific clause in our collective agreements to oblige employers to ensure equal rights for Ukrainian workers and foreign nationals.

Interview by Jacky Delorme

(1) The Bologna process seeks to establish a European higher education area by 2010.