Ukrainian work­ers are be­ing lured abroad, leav­ing busi­nesses at home short of staff

Kyiv Post Legal Quarterly - - Contents - By Ber­met Talant ber­[email protected]­

Some four mil­lion Ukraini­ans work abroad, the lat­est study by the Kyivbased Cen­ter for Eco­nomic Strat­egy has es­ti­mated. That’s al­most 16 per­cent of Ukraine’s work­ing-age pop­u­la­tion. The ma­jor­ity are men, and man­ual la­bor­ers.

These la­bor­ers go abroad seek­ing op­por­tu­nity: most im­por­tantly, jobs with higher wages. But for busi­nesses back home, this is bad news. As work­ers move west, Ukraine’s shop floor work­force is de­clin­ing in num­bers, and man­u­fac­tur­ers are scram­bling to lure work­ers back.


Not long ago, la­bor mi­gra­tion was a headache only for the western parts of Ukraine.

But the trend has spread. To­day, em­ploy­ers across Ukraine re­port short­ages of skilled and un­skilled work­ers. Hard­est-hit are busi­nesses in agri­cul­ture, con­struc­tion, and in­dus­try, which rely on man­ual la­bor.

Much of this mi­gra­tion is sea­sonal, ac­cord­ing to the study by the Cen­ter for Eco­nomic Strat­egy. Ukraini­ans even have a word for sea­sonal job-hunters: zaro­bitchany. These work­ers tend to leave Ukraine in spring and sum­mer, mostly to neigh­bor­ing coun­tries like

Poland and Rus­sia, where there is less of a lan­guage bar­rier. Many also go to the Czech Repub­lic, Por­tu­gal and Israel.

Ukraine’s Euro­pean neigh­bors of­ten look to these mi­grants to ease their own la­bor short­ages.

In Poland, for ex­am­ple, Ukraini­ans re­place Poles who have left for work in Ireland and the United King­dom. The num­ber of work per­mits in the EU is­sued to Ukraini­ans tripled in 2014-2016, ac­cord­ing to the study.

The Czech Repub­lic, Poland, and Israel have even in­tro­duced em­ploy­ment quo­tas for Ukraini­ans in par­tic­u­lar sec­tors such as con­struc­tion.

In Rus­sia, mi­grants from Cen­tral Asia do the dirty jobs Rus­sians don’t want to take. In Ukraine, how­ever, there’s no one to take the place of those who leave.

Low pay

The main driver of Ukraine’s worker ex­o­dus is wages, which are the low­est in Europe. As of 2018, the min­i­mum salary in Ukraine was Hr 3,200 ($121) per month, while the av­er­age salary was Hr 8,480 ($326).

These low wages do lit­tle to ben­e­fit busi­nesses. While cheap la­bor is touted as a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage of Ukraine in at­tract­ing for­eign in­vest­ment, the sup­posed ben­e­fit is a myth, says Vi­taliy Mykhailov, di­rec­tor for East­ern Europe at the World Staff re­cruit­ment agency.

“In­deed the of­fi­cial wages are low. But try to find peo­ple for that money,” Mykhailov said in an in­ter­view with the Kyiv Post. In pur­suit of bet­ter pay, Ukraini­ans go abroad, or go on strike. This, year steel min­ing com­pany Arcelor­mit­tal in Kryvyi Rih saw mas­sive strikes or­ga­nized by the trade unions, who de­manded a raise of work­ers’ salaries to 1,000 eu­ros per month. The cur­rent av­er­age salary there is Hr 12,414 ($471).

While the man­age­ment agreed to a raise, of­fi­cials say the union has set its ex­pec­ta­tions too high.

“No­body in me­tal­lurgy pays salaries of 1,000 eu­ros,” said Elena Pilipenko, HR di­rec­tor for Arcelor­mit­tal. “We be­lieve the is­sue there is po­lit­i­cal.” And salary rises are only a short-term so­lu­tion to keep­ing staff, says Lyud­myla Yanok, chief of staff at Cer­sanit, a Pol­ish tiles and san­i­tary ware man­u­fac­turer based in Chyzhivka vil­lage of Zhy­to­myr Oblast. Their Ukrainian fac­tory em­ploys 1,200 peo­ple.

“We raise salaries ev­ery year. But it is clear that in Ukraine we can’t pay on the same level as in Poland. Sim­i­larly, Pol­ish em­ploy­ers can’t pay like they can in Ger­many,” she told the Kyiv Post.


Un­able to pay in­ter­na­tion­ally com­pet­i­tive salaries, some Ukrainian com­pa­nies try to com­pen­sate with good work con­di­tions and ben­e­fits.

This is a draw; many zaro­bitchany who work abroad of­ten have long hours with­out em­ploy­ment con­tracts, paid leave, and med­i­cal in­sur­ance.

Be­sides ben­e­fit pack­ages, perks in­clude free lunches and trans­port from their homes to fac­to­ries and back.

Dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies find dif­fer­ent so­lu­tions to keep work­ers. For ex­am­ple, Cer­sanit is test­ing a pro­gram to al­low its Ukrainian em­ploy­ees to work for three months at its Pol­ish plants. Ar­cel­lor­mit­tal sub­si­dizes the util­ity bills of its low-paid staff and sends em­ploy­ees’ kids to sum­mer camps be­side the Black Sea.

As a gen­eral trend, Ukrainian com­pa­nies also train em­ploy­ees and help them up­grade their qual­i­fi­ca­tions. They also fo­cus on work­ing with young peo­ple and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. They or­ga­nize ex­cur­sions for high school stu­dents to their pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties. Dur­ing sum­mer hol­i­days, they pro­vide in­tern­ships to stu­dents and hire them for part-time jobs.

“Im­prov­ing an em­ployer’s brand is cru­cial. The bet­ter the rep­u­ta­tion of a com­pany, the more peo­ple are will­ing to work in it,” said Yanok of Cer­sanit.

Most com­pa­nies have adopted “Bring a friend” pro­gram, re­ward­ing an em­ployee for re­fer­ring some­one for a job. This is be­lieved to be more ef­fec­tive way to find new staff than an open call.

Some have started hir­ing older peo­ple, at pre-re­tire­ment age, as they are more loyal and less likely to mi­grate.

Mykhailov of the World Staff re­cruit­ment agency fore­casts that the short­age of la­bor force will only get worse due to ir­re­versible mi­gra­tion and un­pop­u­lar­ity of blue-col­lar jobs.

“The only so­lu­tion for busi­nesses is to adapt: To re­duce man­ual work, in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity, switch to ro­bot au­to­ma­tion,” he said.

A man makes tiles on May 17 at a Ukrainian plant of the Pol­ish tiles and ceramic san­i­tary ware man­u­fac­turer Cer­sanit. The plant is in the vil­lage of Chyzhivka in Zhy­to­myr Oblast. (Kostyan­tyn Ch­er­nichkin)

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