From Organizing Workers to Organizing Humanitarian Aid

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Local women make camouflage nets, Uzhhorod in western Ukraine
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Leslie Vryenhoek

Between July and September 2022, StreetNet International, Cities Alliance and WIEGO interviewed Ukrainian women – most self-employed traders – to determine how the war is affecting women, their incomes and their well-being. Valentyna Korobka was one of these women.

“Mutual aid saves us all,” Valentyna Korobka said in a phone interview.

Valentyna, who chairs the Free Trade Union of Entrepreneurs of Ukraine (VPPU), a StreetNet affiliate, was elaborating on the ways that collective actions are helping Ukrainians survive these dark days.

Under martial law, labour rights have been narrowed and Ukrainian trade unions have been barred from most of their traditional activities advocating for workers’ rights. Instead, they have directed their resources and energy toward helping members and communities in immediate ways. VPPU, a 20,000-member union of market vendors, small-scale traders and entrepreneurs, is one of those unions.

When Russia began its invasion on February 24, VPPU immediately established a volunteer centre under Valentyna’s leadership. 

Members and activists of our trade union, working as volunteers, made a lot of efforts to help socially vulnerable parts of the population – disabled people, families with children – to leave Ukraine,” she said. “Disabled people who could not move were taken out. We cooperated with the Railway Workers’ union, which helped us to take these people and transport them to other cities.

VPPU’s team helped evacuate children from boarding schools and orphanages, transported the ill and infirm, and worked to alleviate suffering.

In the relief effort, she said, everyone who can – from young mothers to the elderly – has jumped in to help. “They did not count time and did not take into account difficulties to help do something useful.” 

The VPPU, established in 2011, used its broad network to disseminate crucial messages – like how to reach the nearest bomb shelters. And when its members’ homes were shelled and their official documents burned, advocating with government officials to provide new passports quickly. Because without this official identification, individuals cannot apply for government assistance. 

As soon as Russian forces pulled out of Irpin, VPPU moved in. “When we arrived in Romanivka, which is not far from Irpin, people did not have a single piece of bread. When we brought 200 loaves of bread to this village, it was grabbed in a matter of minutes,” Valentyna recalled.

“Private entrepreneurs are risking their lives in Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Sumy and other regions…they brought bread and other foodstuffs under fire, risking their lives to save the local population from starvation.”

Fighting for vendors’ rights

Valentyna is no stranger to risking her own safety to improve things for her membership. In 2014, she was physically assaulted for her role in Maidan protests in Kyiv after the Ukrainian government pulled back from signing the Association Agreement with the EU that would bring Ukraine’s legislation in line with European and international standards. Later that year, on a trip to Kharkiv to help negotiate with officials for better working conditions for vendors at Barabashovo market—Europe’s largest—she was again assaulted.

Valentyna, however, continued fighting for workers’ basic rights.

In 2016, she led market vendors in a battle over municipal plans to “improve” Kyiv by dismantling, without consultation, markets and trading stalls. In other cities, too, she and VPPU have helped vendors negotiate with municipal authorities after vendors were forced from the public space where they earned their income to allow for more powerful interests to control it.

Throughout Ukraine, markets where many traders work are too often slated for demolishment in favour of malls, supermarkets, entertainment centres and other big-money interests. At times, attempts to clear markets have involved violent attacks and arson, killing vendors.

Ongoing demolition of markets

Now, vendors face a new threat. Russian missiles have demolished markets, including Barabashovo, where 15,000 enterprises vied for customers. Even months after a large portion was reduced to rubble in March, the market remains a shadow of what it was.

"Traders – members of our trade union – lost everything. Not just jobs, but businesses that have supported people over the years," Valentyna said.

Ironically, despite the crisis, vendors are facing more market closures. Valentyna was contacted in September by 13 market vendors in Kyiv who had been told that city authorities intend to close part of their market.

“This is unacceptable today.” Valentyna said war has already devastated traders’ businesses. A large part of the population has gone to the front line or fled to safer locations inside and outside Ukraine. Unemployment and inflation have left the remaining customers with little to spend, while supply chain disruptions leave vendors with little to sell. According to Valentyna, in the first six months of the war, over 3,000 traders lost their businesses and almost 3,000 more were on the verge of closing.

The closures impact not just vendors but the families who count on their goods to survive, she said of the markets in many communities. “It’s like a lifeline, because people need to buy both bread and something for bread.”

Personal hardship

Despair and trauma have become so widespread that VPPU has brought on a psychologist to help its members cope.

Valentyna is herself an entrepreneur who trades in a wide range of goods, from socks and tights to children’s toys. While the business sustained her and her husband before the war, now there is little business.

After expending so much effort to help others, Valentyna finds herself in need. Her husband is sick, and at the time of the interview they were awaiting confirmation that he has cancer. But cancer treatments will require funds she does not have, so Valentyna will have to ask for help.

“I am supported by relatives, friends and trade unionists. Because you can't stay alone with trouble,” she said. 

Mutual aid saves us all.

Which is why Valentyna is grateful to all those who are providing assistance to the Ukrainian people. "We can do much more together."

To learn more about how the war is affecting Ukrainian women, read Re-building with Women: Amplifying Their Voices in Ukraine’s Recovery, produced by the joint StreetNet International/Cities Alliance/WIEGO project.

Top photo: Ukrainian women are playing a major role in the war effort. Here, local women work together on camouflage netting. Credit: Ukrinform


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