‘This is genocide,’ Ukrainian union leader tells health conference

Service group executive statement says: ‘Sometimes you need to pick a side. Sometimes you need to do the right thing’

standing ovation at health conference for Ukrainian speaker

UNISON’s health conference rose as one this morning to applaud Iryna Shvets, the deputy leader of the Health Workers’ Union of Ukraine (HWUU), and the people of that nation.

Addressing delegates virtually, Ms Shvets, whose union organises 600,000 doctors, nurses and health support workers, in all regions of Ukraine and in more than 90% of health care facilities, said that she would like to have talked “about peaceful health care matters”.

However, for the past two months, Ukrainians “have been raging a heroic struggle against the Russian occupiers”.

She thanked UNISON members in London for organising a delivery of 10 ambulances to Ukraine, saying it would “save many lives”.

Military, financial and humanitarian assistance from the UK was also vital, but there is a desperate need for helmets and body armour for emergency care workers.

“Russia is destroying all international standards,” said Ms Shvets. “There is incredible abuse and crime. The Geneva Conventions are being violated, as health teams and facilities have been targeted”.

She said that 76 ambulances have been destroyed, while there have also been reports of medical staff and their patients taken away by Russian troops.

“Our hospitals are not random targets.” A national specialised children’s hospital in Kyiv is among those shelled. A new hospital in the Sumy region, opened only last October, has also been attacked with tanks and mortars.

“The Russian aggressor is razing villages and towns, and destroying infrastructure – electricity, gas and water supply; telecommunications and health care.

“This is not war, but genocide aimed at destroying Ukraine.”

Ms Shvets said that, in parts of the country that have been liberated, the country’s leaders are already planning to rebuild, with mobile hospitals being currently employed to care for those in need.

“The Ukrainian health system is undergoing a stress test. But it is adapting to the challenges of displaced people and refugees, the disruption of supply chains and systems.

“Since the beginning of the war, our union has made every effort to ensure stable conditions and organisation – supporting internally displaced people, in terms of pay, pensions and more.”

Praising the courage and commitment of Ukrainian health workers, who are “doing everything they can to save lives in Ukraine”, she showed a picture of the bloodied hands of one of those workers in the besieged city of Mariupol, making the sign of a heart, and reported a message from a member, who said: “Tell my mum I have seen so much pain, but I will never break.”

“With people like that,” she said, “we will never break”.

Ms Shvets stressed that what Ukrainians really need is peace, but that they are not only fighting for that in their own country, but for “a peaceful future for all Europe.

“That is why we call upon everyone to unite in this fight and become agents of truthful information, promoting sanctions and pressuring governments to recognise this genocide on the Ukrainian people by Russia,” she said.

And she concluded by saying: “I invite you after victory to the hero city of Kyiv,” before conference rose.

Service group executive statement on Ukraine

Following the speech, Gordon McKay delivered a statement from the service group executive. Trade unionists should always encourage negotiation and finding compromise, it said, “but sometimes you need to pick a side. Sometimes, you just need to do the right thing.”

The statement made clear the committee’s unreserved condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and called for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of all Russian forces.

It also called for:

  • world leaders to take urgent action and definitive steps to start a dialogue and find a peaceful solution in line with the charter of the UN;
  • sanctions that focus on oligarchs and the entourage of Putin – not the working people of Russia;
  • for the UK government to provide a safe haven for all refugees fleeing the conflict.

The committee noted the UK government’s “shameful … hostile environment for refugees”, which is now affecting those fleeing the war.

It expressed condemnation of racist treatment of Black refugees trying to escape Ukraine and supported calls for additional support for disabled refugees fleeing the conflict.

It said: “We offer our support to those Russians who have bravely protested [against] Putin’s war at personal risk of assault and arrest”.

And the executive also called for support for UK workers and their families, and companies, affected by the invasion, as it contributes to the increasing crisis in the cost of living.

To sustained applause, Mr McKay concluded: “Sometimes you need to pick a side. Sometimes, you just need to do the right thing. Solidarity with the health workers of Ukraine. Solidarity with the people of Ukraine”.

To sustained applause, Mr McKay concluded: “Solidarity with the health workers of Ukraine. Solidarity with the people of Ukraine”.