Workers protest in Ukriane.
For the average Ukrainian, the Western values of freedom and democracy are turning into an unprecedented neoliberal experiment to abolish all labor rights and implement something resembling slavery. Measures to force Ukrainians to ‘fight or work’ are presented as a triumph of oft-spoken “European values”, writes Dmitri Kovalevich, a special correspondent in Ukraine for ‘Al Mayadeen English’.
In Western media, the current conflict in Ukraine is often presented as a war between Western-style ‘freedom and democracy’ and Russian-style ‘authoritarianism and dictatorship’. We are told, furthermore, that such ‘freedom and democracy’ are represented by the governing regime in Kyiv. But this is a regime that has banned all men between the ages of 18 and 60 as well as women in certain professions from leaving the country. There is no free internal movement of citizens.
The regime, which came to power in a violent coup in February 2014, has long ago banned all left-wing political parties in the country, and since last year it has banned street protests and strikes. Also last year, it passed a law severely restricting the rights of trade unions. Ukraine was supposed to hold a legislative election this fall, but this has been postponed. For neoliberal capitalism, there can never be too many restrictions against freedom, nor can there ever be too much exploitation.
There is also already a serious shortage of trained personnel in Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of factory workers, skilled tradespeople, railway workers, drivers, and other equipment operators in agricultural industries, and on and on have been conscripted into the army. Many of them have died or been seriously injured in the futile attempts of Ukraine’s leaders and their Western patrons to storm the well fortified defensive lines of the Russian armed forces.
In addition, some eight million people have simply left the country during the past year and a half. Most of those have no wish or plans to return in any foreseeable future.
Although Ukraine is the poorest country on the European continent, many people are not eager to rush into a job. Since the beginning of the year, company managers are obliged to hire employees only after receiving formal approval from the local military conscription office. Thus, a man who applies for an advertised job as a driver may well instead find himself in the trenches, facing minefields and deadly Russian defensive positions. Meanwhile, his former employer will be back on the hustings looking for a replacement driver.
Another factor weighing on the labor market in Ukraine is wage reductions of up to 50 per cent. Teachers are facing salary cuts as the 2023 national budget for public education in Ukraine has been downgraded from an initial 154 billion hryvnias to 131 billion hryvnias (US$3.5 billion). That is less than the 2022 expenditure. In addition, most school districts rely on supplementary funding from local governments, and these funds, too, are being squeezed. In many cities and villages, teachers are receiving ‘survival’ salaries only, losing from 15 per cent all the way to 50 per cent of their income, depending on the state of local budgets.”
This takes place as inflation is around 30 percent annually. Wages in Ukraine today barely cover the cost of basic food. For these reasons and more, many workers retreat into the shadows and choose to work illegally, many in multiple jobs if possible.
Unemployment benefits have also been cut in Ukraine. Today, the average benefit hovers around the equivalent of US$27 per month. The maximum benefit rate is $180 per month, but this is only good for three months.
Food prices in Ukraine are already higher than in Russia and EU countries, from where most food supplies in Ukraine come.
Simply put, Ukraine is gradually introducing a system of slave labor – people must work to meet basic food needs, but they work for steadily shrinking salaries and benefits. Western media is silent about all this
The new draft law on the mobilization of workers is intended to “ensure the functioning of the national economy under martial law”, in the words of those drafting the law.
Earlier, Denysenko’s Ukrainian Institute for the Future published data on population numbers in Ukraine. Since the start of the Russian special military operation in Ukraine 18 months ago, some 8.6 million citizens have left the country and not returned. Of the 29 million citizens remaining in the country, no more than 9.5 million are working. State-financed jobs excluded, there are some six to seven million workers earning salaries. Ukraine began its path to post-Soviet ‘independence’ in 1991, with a population of 52 million. The population numbers have been steadily declining ever since due to mass emigration.
This idea of prohibiting Ukrainian citizens from leaving the country even after the end of hostilities stems, in part, from the fact that Ukraine is now heavily indebted to Western governments and financial institutions. Repayment with interest can only be guaranteed through the merciless exploitation of the Ukrainian population. To achieve that, it is necessary that the population be denied the option of running away from something rightly perceived as something resembling slavery or medieval serfdom.
In July 2023, the foreign exchange reserves of the National Bank of Ukraine grew by 6.9% to $41.7 billion, the highest monthly increase since 1991. However, the largest share of the increase came not from economic growth and increased export revenues but from international assistance to the tune of $4.7 billion. Most of that comes in the form of loans from the European Union, the United States, Japan, the IMF, and the World Bank, to be repaid in the future.
Bloomberg News reported on July 24 that Ukraine needs to bring back 2.8 million of its women citizens from abroad in order to have a chance at economic recovery following the end of military hostilities.
According to a recent estimate by the Ukrainian Ministry of Economy, Ukraine will need to attract an additional 4.5 million workers to the labor market over the next ten years. But at current wage levels, people are more likely to leave the country than to stay and work.
At the end of July, Ukrainians were also apprised of a stunning proposal that the working week may be increased to 60 hours, consisting of six days of work at ten hours per day or five days at 12 hours. At least, that is the idea published by the Eastern interregional office of the State Service of Ukraine on Labor Issues. The duration of weekly, uninterrupted rest would be reduced to 24 hours, that is, Ukrainians will have only Sunday as a day of rest from work. This idea would first be implemented in enterprises working in critical infrastructure or “defense”. The increase in the work week is said to be required by the shortage of workers and the need to constantly repair energy infrastructure.
In the future that Ukrainian politicians and their Western advisors and think tanks are preparing, many Ukrainians will work up to 12 hours a day with few days off, earning less than a minimum subsistence salary. They won’t dare flee their country because the consequences of being caught could easily become deadly.
European slave traders once captured slaves in Africa and transported them in bondage to the Americas and other far-flung destinations. They could not come up with a more forceful and chilling display of what their modern-day ‘freedom and democracy’ truly means, Dmitri Kovalevich concludes.
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