Swimming Upstream: Stories of people who challenged employer tyranny in Ukraine

In the current Ukrainian context, the demand of society for fairer living conditions and the demand of the people who are ready to promote and defend them is increasingly strong. And experience shows that there are more and more people in Ukraine who put the pursuit of truth and the protection of public interest above personal comfort. Such convictions give citizens the strength to take action even when everyone else is giving up. We will share a bunch of such inspiring stories.

This article spotlights healthcare workers who have committed themselves to defending their labor rights. According to the State Employment Service data for January-March 2023, it is healthcare and social services workers who are the first in line for mass layoffs, second only to public administration and defense workers. Despite the complexity of the legal process and resistance from the management, our heroes stood up for their rights. The medical workers note that in defending their labor rights, they were guided primarily by justice and the protection of social rights, which gave them strength in their struggle.

Quit or it will get worse

The story of 29-year-old trauma and orthopedic surgeon Serhiy Kotyk from Vinnytsia is one example of employer tyranny. In August of last year, the administration of the Vinnytsia Regional Children’s Clinical Hospital of the Vinnytsia Regional Council, where Serhiy worked, began a large-scale layoff. Mostly nurses were fired, as well as part-time doctors, including Serhiy. He was given the choice of quitting or not getting paid.

“The head of the department called and said I was fired. He demanded that I write a letter of resignation, otherwise, I would not be paid, and I would not be hired by any other hospital. I said I would not write anything. After that, the head of the department called me back a few more times and said that the accounting department had confirmed to him that I would not be given any money. This attitude offended me even more,” Serhiy told Commons.

The doctor decided to seek the truth in court. The rest of the staff, he says, have written letters of resignation. Serhiy had no experience in court cases, so he turned to the Ukrainian medical movement “Be Like Nina” for advice, where he enlisted the support of Vitaliy Dudin, Ph.D. in law and chairman of the board of the Sotsialnyi Rukh (Social Movement) NGO. Serhiy Kotyk explained to our journalists that he was guided not so much by keeping his job and salary, which was low, as by his desire to show medical workers that they were not slave executives of the medical institution’s management.

“My goal was to restore justice and to show medical workers that they are not slaves! If all employees started to be outraged, there would be less arbitrariness in the medical field. After all, experience shows that those doctors who start fighting for their rights achieve their goals,” he said. Serhiy’s confidence was also boosted by his love for his work and for the hospital, which he first joined as a student.

Ultimately, three court hearings were held, and in March, the Vinnytsia City Court decided to reinstate the doctor at work and oblige his employer to pay his salary for the period of forced absence. The doctor recalls that after that, the administration’s attitude toward him changed. No one dared to make harsh remarks about him. He even got the impression that the management was afraid of him.

However, the story is not over yet. Serhiy’s employer appealed to the Court of Appeal, which ruled in his favor on May 3. After that, the hospital paid him up and he left. In turn, Serhiy plans to go to the Supreme Court if the reasons can be challenged (the full text of the decision is not yet available). At the same time, Serhiy Kotyk’s example has already inspired his colleagues. According to him, several young medical workers from the hospital have already asked him about the nuances of protecting their labor rights in court and asked him to share his contacts.

“You were the only one who put them in their place”

It should be noted that older people are also involved in the fight for labor rights. One of them is Liudmyla Pukha, a 54-year-old nurse from Myrhorod, Poltava Oblast. She sued her employers, which allowed her to resume work and receive compensation for forced absence.

Her story began last year. Back then, the administration of the Myrhorod Intensive Care Hospital initiated a large-scale lay-off. Liudmyla was also informed about the lay-offs. She told our journalists that the news shocked her. After all, she, as a nurse of the highest category, had given 37 years of her life to the hospital and was in good standing there. In addition, her husband and son had disabilities. At first, Liudmyla thought she could reason with the new manager, who had been appointed a few months earlier. However, all her arguments proved to be in vain. Moreover, she says, when she was collecting documents to present to the management, she was informed that such annoying employees as herself would not be tolerated at the hospital.

“Then I told the director that I would go to court. He said, ‘Go ahead, if you win, we’ll reinstate you,’” Liudmyla says.

As a result, the Myrhorod City Court sided with Liudmyla Pukha. However, the hospital administration filed an appeal. It is also worth noting that during the process, the employer showed great persistence and used all the powers granted to them to convince the court that they were right. As Vitaliy Dudin, who represented the nurse during the trial in the Myrhorod City Court, told Commons, the employer called three witnesses from the administration to convince the court that the plaintiff had allegedly been offered other positions, but she had refused them. However, this step did not help. According to the court, the employer provided contradictory evidence that was inconsistent with the case file. In February, the Court of Appeal also sided with the plaintiff, noting that “she was not offered all the available positions at the hospital.” Also, the defendant’s administration ignored Liudmyla’s pre-emptive right to remain at work.

The news of the nurse’s victory came as a complete surprise to many of her colleagues and acquaintances, most of whom did not believe she could win.

“When I won the case, the doctors and nurses from other departments, as well as from the clinic, were sincerely happy for me. They said: you were the only one who put them in their place! I believe that people should fight for their labor rights. After all, what is there to be afraid of? If your employer fires you, what more can they do? But if you win, you will not only get what is due, but you will also make yourself respected. Then they will avoid you like the plague because they will know that you are not one of those who bow down,” the nurse said.

Fighting for people

Our next heroine is nurse Oksana Hladun from Sosnivka, Lviv region. She is known for organizing a hunger strike in August 2021, along with other hospital employees, because the administration of her medical institution owed her salary. However, the main confrontation between the medical workers and their management took place in court. The story began when in October 2019, the hospital administration decided to close the therapy department, which included children’s ward, the emergency room, and the kitchen. At the same time, 44 medical staff positions were cut. In March 2020, all departments of the city hospital were closed. This was the last straw for the healthcare workers who decided to fight for their rights and the rights of the mining town to have a hospital. The Sosnivska hospital example is unique in that some of the laid-off medical staff united to protect their labor rights. People organized protests together and attended court hearings.

The leader of the movement was Oksana Hladun, who was the head of the primary hospital trade union organization, the Free Trade Union of Healthcare Workers of Ukraine. Oksana told our journalists that before these events she had not participated in the organization of such events, and had no experience of legal confrontation — she was just a nurse in the hospital. These events forced her to take the fate of her medical institution into her own hands. That’s how the hospital formed a trade union, and the staff elected Oksana Hladun as the head of the union, which constantly appealed to the authorities at all levels. Thus, the woman managed to unite the medical staff and the city’s population around her.

“When the experienced hospital staff was kicked to the curb during the lockdown, I started seeking legal assistance from anyone I could. Finally, I found a lawyer, journalist, and public figure Yaroslav Zhukrovskyi. He sympathized with our struggle and continued to help us defend the interests of our employees, providing us with legal support pro bono. The lawyer’s help gave me confidence, and the girls felt it too, so they stayed with me. Although to be honest, not many of them really believed in our victory,” Oksana says.

The nurse believes that, in addition to legal support, the goals of their protests played a key role in uniting the staff. According to the woman, she and her like-minded colleagues aimed not so much to get their jobs back, or to get money back for forced absence, but to achieve justice and save the hospital. The doctors believed that the layoffs were only the first step toward closing the medical facility (there were already rumors about this). Therefore, defending her labor rights, Oksana Hladun and other medical workers fought to preserve the hospital as a whole and, as a result, for the benefit of their fellow residents.

“As I see it, the preservation of the hospital is a struggle to provide round-the-clock medical care to the 12,000 people of the mining town, including 3,000 children. Perhaps that’s why the locals came to our protests and supported us. The administration was harassing my union members to leave the union. Our union survived thanks to three employees who did not leave me and gave me the opportunity to fight for a better future for the hospital. I felt the support of the townspeople. People are a great force. I could not have done anything on my own,” the chief nurse said.

Of course, there were attempts to discredit her as the head of the union and to deprive her of her leadership. Oksana was offered to return to her job, but she refused and stayed with all the laid-off employees. Eventually, the medical workers won. The court reinstated 19 people, and the hospital paid the average monthly employer-caused work-stoppage rate to all those who filed a claim. Currently, Oksana is working in her favorite nursing position. She is the head of the primary trade union organization of Free Medical Workers of Ukraine in this institution and continues to try to protect the rights of employees and preserve the hospital for the population of the city.

Since 2020, the management of the Sosnivka hospital has changed every two months, with a total of six managers. In November 2022, a hospital manager was elected on a competitive basis, who has found common ground with the authorities and is respected by the staff. Now the situation in the hospital has improved. Salaries were raised, and a digital X-ray machine and a modern ultrasound machine were procured. The staff and management of the hospital are doing their best to provide the best possible and affordable medical care to the public in this difficult time.

A line of defense

The experience of the nurses from Sosnivka has shown that a joint struggle for labor rights can achieve greater results than individual initiatives. Therefore, systemic changes, both in medicine and in other areas, can be achieved by strengthening the role of associations, especially trade unions. According to Vitaliy Dudin, the activities of trade unions will be effective primarily if their representatives feel responsible to their members and actively work to prevent the layoffs of employees, especially mass lay-offs.

“In my opinion, trade unions should impose their will on employers and initiate timely consultations on postponing dismissals or minimizing them,” the lawyer said.

Despite the obvious advantages of collective labor rights protection, unfortunately, this mechanism is not yet widespread in Ukraine. Although the “Be Like Nina” movement and other initiatives show great potential in this area. At the same time, the number of people who seek to protect their labor rights on an individual basis is increasing. According to Vitaliy Dudin, despite the obvious advantages of employers during litigation — the potential of manipulating facts, as in the case of Liudmyla Pukha, as well as other obstacles in the form of court fees, attorneys’ fees, and neoliberal changes in labor legislation — ordinary citizens have enough opportunities to defend their rights in court. And the trend, the lawyer notes, is that people are increasingly taking advantage of this opportunity.

The expert believes that the challenges that society has faced recently make people less afraid of litigation in defending their rights. This is also facilitated by a large number of positive examples.

“People used to be afraid of their bosses and felt moral discomfort asking them not to fire them, but the situation is changing now. Against the backdrop of the horror of the shelling, the loss of people’s loved ones, and the destruction of cities, a dispute with an employer does not look as scary as it used to be,” he said.

Therefore, the topic of protecting one’s rights is becoming increasingly interesting to many citizens today. And society is particularly grateful for initiatives aimed at supporting their interests in this area. In this regard, we would like to say a few words about the Trudoborona project initiated by members of the Social Movement NGO. This project is designed to provide, we emphasize, free legal support to all those who decide to defend their labor rights. As Vitaliy Dudin explained, citizens are encouraged to defend their interests efficiently, quickly, and at the lowest cost, i.e., without hiring a lawyer.

“Of course, if a person wants to, they can enlist the support of a lawyer. But within the project, we explain how to defend your rights on your own, based on our practical experience and current court practice,” the lawyer summarized.

Of course, the trend of employees being forced to confront employers in court indicates problems in Ukraine’s labor climate. In this case, the most effective way to fight is by pressuring the administration and seeking collective action. Unfortunately, the trend is still going in the other direction. The state, frankly, is not doing enough to provide jobs for everyone who wants to work. At the same time, labor legislation is adopted in favor of employers, with the prospect of remaining so even after martial law is lifted. Therefore, it is only natural that people will demand fairer treatment of their labor rights. The stories we have cited are a vivid example of this. And it is gratifying to see that when people fight for their rights, they are guided not only by their personal but also by public interests. And this is a vivid example of the development of society and a manifestation of its potential.