In a boost for Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts and worker rights, Olena Bebeshko, leader of the Independent Trade Union of Aviation Workers of Ukraine at the VIP terminal at Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport, won a landmark legal victory last week. An appeals court affirmed a 2021 lower court decision that—under whistleblower-protection rules—Bebeshko had been illegally fired in retaliation for reporting widespread corruption at the terminal.
The court ordered immediate reinstatement, at full pay, and awarded her $5,300 compensation.
“This case is a milestone for labor rights protections and combating large scale corruption,” said Independent Aviation Workers Union of Ukraine President Veniamin Tymoshenko.
After reporting corruption at the terminal to Ukraine’s National Anticorruption Bureau, Bebeshko and other terminal workers suffered harassment and violent attacks. For example, a mother of two, Natalia Zhulinska, was fired after refusing to ignore improper activities and almost entirely blinded in a 2017 acid attack. Before that, her car was destroyed by fire, with explosives and weapons planted inside to frame her for the attempt on her life, says her union.
Bebeshko was fired in 2021 after directing corruption allegations from the union to the National Anticorruption Bureau. Although a lower court ordered that she be reinstated immediately, she was denied admittance to her workplace and her pay cut by one-third during the appeals process.
The court decision has advanced the country’s fight for whistleblower rights and against corruption. Bebeshko is of one of very few workers to have won official whistleblower status in Ukraine, despite new legislation that provides whistleblowers with added protections, especially as applied to labor rights.
Transparency International in 2020 ranked Ukraine 122 out of 181 countries in relative degree of corruption. The “Solidarity Against Corruption” campaign—a broad alliance of civil society members including unions and Solidarity Center partner Labor Initiatives (LI)—aims to improve legal protections for workplace rights, whistleblowers and freedom of association in Ukraine.
Workers at the Boryspil airport VIP terminal began reporting rampant corruption in 2014 after new management took over following a change of government. Loyalists willing to engage in, or facilitate, corruption allegedly retained their jobs while 50 workers were laid off and their positions turned over to new managers’ friends and family. The goal, the union says, was to ensure that only those willing to ignore or support management skimming of airport funds—among other corrupt practices—worked the terminal. Terminal workers the following year organized and affiliated to the Ukrainian Independent Trade Union of Aviation Workers of Ukraine to collectively protect their jobs, and the public, from corrupt practices at the terminal.