Crane operators are unprotected workers


Trudova Halychyna Patrick Le Tréhondat

August 4, 2023
In English
En castellano

"Wages for crane operators and construction workers are very low. Workers in this industry can rarely earn more than 20,000 hryvnias a month [€482]. This income does not guarantee workers a normal standard of living. In order to ensure decent wages and the safety of workers, construction industry workers and their union have launched a campaign for decent wages - 200 hryvnias/hour", declared the the construction union (FPU) on 18 July 2023. That same month, the crane operators' union in the Lviv region celebrated its fourth anniversary. In an interview with Trudova Halychyna[1], Lubomyr,  one of the union's activists, talks about the union's history, its achievements and the challenges facing crane operators.

Can you tell us how and why the union was founded?

Around 2016, we raised the issue of setting up a union. Although the crane operators wanted it, we weren't competent to set it up and didn't know the procedure. So the idea was shelved. Later, when I was working on a crane, I met Galina Petrovna [crane operator and union activist from Kyiv - editor's note]. She put me in touch with Artem [a left-wing trade unionist and member of the Social Movement]. We met him and Vasyl Andreyev [deputy head of the building trade union], who was from Kyiv, and a few crane operators came from our region. Artem and Vasyl helped us set up the union. And the first real step towards its foundation was the fall of a crane at Sykhiv [an accident that injured a crane operator - editor's note]. We had already submitted the documents for the creation of the union at that time. That brought us even closer together. Why did we set up a union? First of all, to benefit from protection, because crane operators are unprotected workers. In all our jobs, we sometimes have to commit offences. If we refused to do so, we risked not being paid. And if we went on strike, we risked being sacked. We set up the union to protect our rights.

What are your main achievements and successes over the last four years?

If the union had any problems, we would send a request to Kyiv [to the union's national leadership]. They would solve the problem. There have been cases where crane operators, while working officially, have lost almost a year's seniority because of lies from employers who had not submitted their employees' documents to the right places. At their request, we sent a complaint to Kyiv, after which the problems were resolved very quickly. Sometimes the case even went to the prosecutor's office, but we got the upper hand. The union also works effectively when someone needs help.

When one of us needed help, we raised money for that person. I'm talking about serious, urgent problems: for example, if someone's house has burnt down or they need expensive surgery. It became a tradition. Later, we started to make regular collections to help our colleagues serving in the army. For equipment, medical, treatment and anything else they need. We also collect money for crane operators who are not union members. We don't separate union members from the rest of our colleagues. We simply use different methods to achieve a common goal.

At the moment, many of the union's crane operators have been conscripted into the army. We're using this time to push for a pay rise. To do this, we are preparing a petition after discussing it among ourselves and with the union committee. Today, when an employer is looking for crane operators, all the candidates are referred to me. My job is to inform them that the current rate is 180 hryvnias per hour, no less. To warn people that the wage cannot be lowered in Lviv, we use the internet platforms in Lviv, Kyiv and Ivano-Frankivsk.

Tell us how you work with employers. How do you make them understand that salaries should be exactly what they are?

The union cannot influence employers directly, but we write letters of recommendation to ask them to consider a pay review. The boss has the final say. At the moment, we're not using these rights because we have another way of putting pressure on the employer: there are no other crane operators here, and a crane can't work without a crane operator. So employers have no choice but to turn to us. For our part, we've organised everything so that problems are solved through one person - me. They come to see me, I tell them how much the salary is and they ask themselves if they can afford it. If they can't, and they offer, for example, to pay an hourly wage of 150 Hryvnias [€3.70] per hour instead of 180 [€4.44], then they should look for someone! They can't find anyone, because there is no one. They are then off work for 3 days to a week. The teams who work there find themselves without work and without income. Finding themselves in a desperate situation, the employers accept our conditions.

In other words, we're now talking about pay rises without going through the union process. The union works within the legal framework: if someone doesn't receive their salary, is sacked or is dismissed without any legal grounds, the union writes warning letters and then the case goes to court or to the prosecutor's office. It's a long process. But to raise wages, we need to act quickly, not wait.

Kyiv wants another way, through the union, to increase wages. This takes a lot of time and it is not a given that the employer will respond to the union, let alone that wages will be increased.

However, if you present him with a fait accompli, the situation will be the same as in the case of non-payment of utility bills: the electricity is cut off. We were warned that the electricity tariff had increased since 1er June [a tariff increase in June 2023 - editor's note] and nobody asked if we could pay. If you can't, just pull the plug and don't pay. We did the same thing: if you want, hire workers at our rate or work without a crane operator.

You said that the union works within a legal framework. Today, during the war, labour legislation has undergone numerous changes that further complicate the work of unions and employees. In particular, zero hours contracts and restrictions on labour inspections. How does this affect your work?

Firstly, the impact is significant because our colleagues are called up for military service and it's not always possible to replace them. So we have to help them afterwards. I have called on the Ukrainian Federation of Trade Unions on several occasions, and on Andreev in particular. I needed help for our crane operators who were not union members. He got back to me. It was material help, small things like turnstiles, glasses and gloves. I received all this free of charge and passed it on to the crane operators themselves.

What changes should be made to legislation or to the country as a whole to enable you to work better?

Working conditions. Firstly, because we have a lot of obsolete cranes. They should have been scrapped a long time ago. Many cranes are still in service, but their lifespan has already expired. We know this because when a crane operator climbs onto a crane, he has to check the metal structure, the safety devices, the mechanisms, etc. In other words, check whether the crane has been used for a long time. In other words, they have to check that the cranes can be used, even if they are not in the condition they should ideally be in.

The person who comes to operate the crane also wants a decent wage. He or she won't be working for the same amount of money as an assistant. If there are a lot of people in the country - and there are a lot of people in hiding - who don't pay social security contributions, we have to change things. However, neither we nor even the union can solve this problem. All we can do is influence just one part of the problem - to get us better paid. But in general, it's up to the state apparatus to decide how to make everyone feel good.

We must also resolve the problem of breaches of formal rules. Of course, we have to break them because we have to do our job. For example, we have to work with people who are not trained. At the same time, we make sure that the cranes are at least well maintained and that construction records are kept. This is very important, not just for the crane operator, but for all the staff. They also need to be told how to work properly, how to use the radio, so that the crane operator can understand the instructions (he may think one thing and say another when working on a specific order). It is already necessary to set up minimum courses so that people who do not have a crane operator's licence are better prepared to use the crane and can master its operation.

How do you think the issue of safety on the site should be addressed? Should there be some sort of inspection to deal with this issue?

Yes, there should be an inspection. We currently have a number of violations. For example, we work in the wind. The authorised speed for crane operation is 12.5 m/s, and 9 m/s. Some cranes can operate in wind conditions of up to 15 m/s, but this does not mean that they are allowed to lift cargo with a sail (the authorised speed is the same for everyone). Sometimes these standards are not respected at all, and the cranes operate in stormy weather.

One day, we had a fatal accident in Sykhiv. We asked them to re-establish the mechanism by which companies are informed when a storm is imminent, so that no one works during this period. But all cases of violation must be documented by an authorised body. It's not the crane operator who should be punished, but the unscrupulous management that demands work in such weather conditions.

We could also set up a helpline for safety at work. Suppose I go to replace someone and find that the crane is in poor condition. I can call the helpline and make a complaint, explaining what's wrong. For its part, the company should respond within three days, for example. This used to be called Kotlonadzor [the Boilers and Lifting Structures Supervision Department of the State Mining Supervision, which monitors compliance with the rules for the safe installation and operation of pressurised steam boilers and lifting structures - editor's note]. At the moment, there are no bodies that carry out such audits. Today, everything works like this: you pay, it's installed and it works. And that's it!

During the war, many people lost their homes, and we all dream of rebuilding them afterwards. It's clear that we'll need crane operators to rebuild. What is the current state of crane operator training?

There are two educational establishments in Lviv that can train crane operators. However, they only teach theory, not practice. It's very bad! That's where I improved my skills. Yes, it's all very interesting and correct, but there's a lot of useless information. A future crane operator is told about the structure of the engine and electrophysics. I understand that this is part of his job, but he won't be able to do it himself in practice, there are specially trained staff for that. The crane operator needs to have instructions for his work: what type of load he has to move, how the load should be slung (he won't be slinging it himself, but he needs to understand if everything is done correctly).

Unfortunately, educational establishments do not offer a good practical part, so students have to look for companies themselves that will give them the opportunity to learn and gain experience. Some students simply buy certificates. One of the great disadvantages of the education system is that there is no crane on university land to initiate students. It's like when you take your driving test: first they teach you the theory, then they make you practise. If you were allowed to drive on the road immediately after learning the theory, you would be a dangerous driver. It's the same thing here. You could sign contracts with private or public organisations, for example with a metal depot, where the cranes are smaller and the work is not as risky as on a building site. But this does not exist, at least not in Lviv. It's worth pointing out that if you hire an inexperienced welder, what he welds can be broken if he makes a mistake, and if you hire an inexperienced crane operator and he causes problems, it can cost someone their life.

How do you see the future of your profession and your union? Do you think the situation will improve? Do you hope that the state will become more involved in defending your rights? Or are you going to fight for them one way or another?

First of all, like all of us, I want the war to end. Secondly, I want all crane operators to be together, not only within a region, but also between regions. I want crane operators in Lviv and Kyiv to be on good terms, and I want us to go to each other's workplaces where our rights are respected and where there is a single tariff.

I hope the union continues to grow. It is necessary. A lot of people don't trust it. There may have been cases where the union did nothing. Yes, the union can't directly increase your salary or repair your crane. Some union crane operators say: "My crane is broken and the union does nothing". But this person doesn't realise that this question doesn't apply to us. If he wrote a statement to the union official, the latter would send a report on the dangerous crane to the public employment service.

Because crane operators also forget a lot of things, turn a blind eye to certain things and, when something happens, they look for someone to blame. In fact, they're the ones to blame, because they get on dangerous cranes, break a lot of rules and then demand. The president of the syndicate can't know about all the problems, so you have to write a request. Go to the union committee, we'll meet halfway.

In general, we need a lot of things to develop. We need to change a lot of things about our reality. First and foremost, there are the cranes. The old Soviet system needs to be eliminated, so that employers modernise old equipment, provide air conditioning and create comfortable working conditions. All this affects productivity. The union should issue letters of recommendation on what to provide and how to provide it. And let the company decide whether or not it has the capacity to do so. If it's not possible to install air conditioning, at least install a wind turbine or provide water. If there is no single solution, you can find another.

What's on your mind now?

The most important thing is pay. Before the coronavirus, all salaries went up in the spring and autumn, with an increase of 10 hryvnias. Then came Covid, the war, and everything calmed down. The employer found himself in a situation of insolvency. Supposedly, he could no longer afford it. At the same time, during the same period, he bought new equipment, cars, a crane, put people to work, increased his own salary, but the crane operator's salary was frozen. And for us, prices and inflation rose during this period. During the war, food prices rose by an average of 70-100%. Nobody increased our wages by 100%, so until we increase wages, we won't catch up. Depending on the contract signed between the contractor and the customer, an estimate is drawn up. If the cost of rebar suddenly doubles, it will obviously be revised. In other words, they know the situation, but we workers are being lied to. Why are they lying to us? To make money off our backs. Let them make money, of course, but let them give us a wage that allows us to do our shopping. We're not fighting for a trip to Cyprus, but to be able to provide for our families, pay for public services and medical treatment, and send our children to school.

Do you think that employers negotiate among themselves to avoid raising rates?

Yes, they communicate with each other. They have their own orga nisaition where they discuss various issues, including our salaries.


[1] Trudova Halychyna (Labor in Galicia) is an online media dedicated to social and trade union issues in this region of Ukraine.