How London played a role in Zelensky’s newest clampdown on the rights of the country’s citizens with Zero hour contracts
In a scheme which may have been devised in far away London, Europe’s lowest paid workforce has just lost some of the few precious protections it had. The measure flies in the face of Ukraine’s apparent ambitions to join the European Union.
On August 22, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky ratified highly controversial new labor laws, ones that have wide-ranging negative implications for the overwhelming majority of the country’s workers.
Employees work at the steel production of the Melitopol autotractor spare parts factory, in Melitopol, Ukraine.
Collectively known as Bill 5371, the legislation robs up to 70 percent of Ukrainian employees of rights and protections provided under the country’s established national labor law, while severely restricting the power of already-embattled trade unions to organize.
President Zelensky’s ruling Servant of the People party argues the “liberalizing” measures are not only necessary, but long overdue, as a result of Kiev’s “extreme over-regulation of employment” contradicting “principles of market self-regulation [and] modern personnel management,” and creating “bureaucratic barriers both for the self-realization of employees and for raising the competitiveness of employers.”
By contrast, in the lead-up to Bill 5371’s ratification, a great many groups within and outside the country expressed outcry at the proposed measures over many months.
The International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency charged with ensuring social and economic justice by safeguarding international labor standards, including conditions of freedom, equity, security and dignity in workplaces worldwide, published a withering and extensive analysis of the proposals – as did Ukraine’s own parliamentary committee on EU integration.
The body charged that the legislation “weakens labor protection, narrows the scope of labor rights and social guarantees of employees, in comparison with the current legislation,” in contravention of Ukraine’s obligations to Brussels under the terms of its Association Agreement.
Andrey Reva, Ukraine’s former minister of social policy, has leveled similar charges:
“Employees will no longer have any protection against arbitrary dismissal. Upon hiring, the employee will be asked to sign an employment agreement, which will allow the employer to obtain unilateral advantages during its conclusion and deprive the employee of any legal opportunities for his defense … Why is this being done right now, when Ukraine has submitted an application to join the European Union and is awaiting its consideration?”
Made in Britain
Many comparisons have been drawn between these ‘reforms’ and notorious “zero-hour” contracts, which offer staffers no paid vacation time, limits on daily or weekly hours worked, notice periods, pension contributions, or even guaranteed work in the first place.
They have been dubbed by academics as “a post-modern form of slavery.”
Internationally, the use of zero-hour contracts is almost exclusively restricted to Britain, with retailers, service industry operators, bars, restaurants and fast food enterprises throughout the country using them extensively, despite significant controversy. For example, 90% of McDonald’s workers in the country – amounting to almost 100,000 people – are employed on zero-hour terms.
Due to enormous public and trade union pressure, several major businesses that previously relied heavily on zero-hour workers have phased out their usage entirely in recent years, and there are ongoing efforts to ban such contracts outright. In New Zealand, they were outlawed in April 2016 before even taking off in the country.
One might wonder then why such a uniquely British phenomenon will be adopted by a country with which it has so little in common economically.
The answer to that disturbing riddle lies in a leaked document revealing London has been intimately involved in covert information warfare operations to sell the deeply damaging new laws to Ukrainians as beneficial, and convince the public to harm their own interests by embracing the change.
The file in question is a communication strategy prepared by research consultancy Abt Associates, on behalf of the British Embassy in Kiev, and Foreign Office unit UK Aid, which officially aims to “achieve sustained poverty reduction,” improve the lot of “poor communities in developing countries,” and advocate for “free and fair work conditions.”
It offers extensive proposals for marketing the new laws, right down to “visual stylistics” to be used in on and offline ad campaigns, social media messaging, and press conferences.
For example, Abt Associates suggested using “contrasting” aesthetics, by “inverting colors” – “light text and graphics on a deep blue background.”
The “advantages” of this approach were said to be to be: “brighter, more emotional, eyecatching, will differ from the predominantly white color scheme of publications on the pages of the [Finance] Ministry,” and “gives more opportunities to use creative illustrations.” Nonetheless, the risk that “emotional and vivid communication … will be perceived negatively” was acknowledged.
If that wasn’t manipulative enough, a section offering “recommendations” for “general principles of public communication of the bill” starkly underlines the duplicity and manipulation at the campaign’s core.
Noting that public figures supporting the legislation had to date purely extolled the benefits for employers, Abt Associates proposed inverting this to focusing on ostensible “positive results” for employees.
“Make communication easier and more emotional. Add formats of materials that will contain short simple formulations of key benefits,” the company wrote, going on to endorse surreptitiously enlisting the support of “opinion leaders” such as “journalists and bloggers” via “off-the-record meetings with the participation of the heads of the [Finance] Ministry and (optionally) the authors of the bill.”
“Emotional messages that do not correspond to the tone of the Ministry’s communication may be voiced by third parties,” the document explains.
Examples of messaging to be employed included portraying the “main purpose” of the laws to be “[protecting] new opportunities for both employees and employers,” creating “more opportunities and resources for business development,” and helping workers “get legal jobs faster and easier.”
Conversely, a list of “expected results” from the legislation included in the presentation – not intended for public consumption – ranked “increasing investment in Ukraine’s economy by improving business conditions” above most other potential benefits.
The end of democracy
How much London ultimately spent on this malign effort isn’t clear, although the sums involved could have been significant – UK Aid’s budget stands at £150 million, and the Foreign Office spent £40 million on a variety of programs in Ukraine in 2020/21, among them the labor-busting initiative administered by Abt Associates.
Still, British meddling wasn’t entirely successful. After being introduced to parliament in early 2021, legislators consistently refused to back it in significant numbers.
This changed on May 12 this year, when the Rada voted in favor of the legislation’s first reading by a landslide – 192 votes to zero.
Pivotal to the laws’ sudden success was support from several previously-opposed political parties and groupings, which were banned less than two weeks earlier by Zelensky’s order.
British media outlet openDemocracy speculates this crackdown – and the prospect of MPs belonging to these factions being purged from parliament outright in the future – may have been pivotal in convincing them to vote the ‘right’ way.
Since the 2014 Maidan revolution, Kiev has represented a neverending feeding frenzy for Western governments and corporations.
One of the post-coup government’s first acts was to remove constitutional restrictions on foreign shareholdings in Ukrainian businesses, privatization, and land ownership, and accept sizable loans from predatory US-dominated financial institutions such as the IMF, which opened up the country’s vast natural resources and land for untrammeled overseas plunder and profiteering.
While a great many companies and individuals have benefited handsomely from this wellspring – look no further than America’s first family for example – sizable public opposition to impoverishing neoliberal reforms had to date prevented outright enslavement of the population.
Now, though, with protests prohibited under martial law, opposition parties and dissident media outlets remorselessly censored and banned, scores of government critics – including officials themselves – arbitrarily jailed, and a brutal nationwide effort to root out “traitors” underway, the ability – or willingness – of Ukrainians to take to the streets and oppose measures such as the new anti-worker legislation is harshly truncated, if not eliminated entirely.
In the process, Zelensky’s ruling party is free to steamroll any and all laws through parliament it wishes – and the West’s total takeover of Kiev can finally be completed.
It seems odd that Ukraine is imposing such discredited and reviled arrangements on its citizens when public yearning for EU enrolment is at an all-time high, and high-ranking officials, including Zelensky, are demanding Brussels allow the country immediate entry to the bloc – the terms of Bill 5371 are contrary to Union workers’ directives and protections.
Perhaps, though, London and Washington, for all their pronouncements to the contrary, are unconcerned about Kiev becoming a member – in fact, that might suit their interests better.
By Slobodan Kolomoets