At the start of May, the mood among Ukrainian staff of international brewing giant AB InBev in Belgium was extremely buoyant. At a press event to launch the production of Ukrainian beer Chernigivske, Ukrainian staff members and their families were treated to free lunches and beers in front of the gathered press.
Staff members told The Brussels Times that AB InBev had helped many of them to leave Ukraine and had offered to put them up in comfortable quarters within Brussels. However, it now appears that staff in both Belgium and the Czech Republic may soon have to alter their relocation plans significantly.
Following an anonymous complaint from Ukrainian staff at the company, The Brussels Times has now learned that many of the Ukrainian workers in Belgium will soon face difficulties, following a 1 July corporate decision to withdraw accommodation at the end of August.
Multiple sources within the company, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs within AB InBev’s Ukrainian subsidiary, state that they now feel helpless, and forced to make a colossal decision – attempt to live in Belgium on a Ukrainian wage, or return to uncertainty and instability in Ukraine.
To protect the identities of the staff interviewed by The Brussels Times, the names of the employees have been changed.
Between a rock and a hard place
“I’m at a loss about what to do next,” Daryna writes. Like other Ukrainian AB InBev staff, Daryna fled the country in the early days of the war. Many of the staff at the company received support to flee Ukraine and continue to receive their salaries, for which they have been very grateful.
During the war, Ukraine’s 1,800 AB InBev staff were given the choice of either remaining in the west of Ukraine or travelling to Prague or Leuven, where the company maintains offices and its manufacturing base. AB InBev received a total 160 people in Belgium, made up from staff and their family. Belgium is where most of the company's production and distribution is located.
Ukrainian staff fleeing the war were put up in one of two locations in Brussels. The Ukrainian refugees have currently lived for five months at the Hotel Plasky, in the east of the city, and Citadines Apart-hotel in Louise.
AB InBev did indeed offer support to those who chose to relocate to Belgium. Employee Olga told The Brussels Times that the company continued to pay their Ukrainian salary, invited social workers to visit them on several occasions, and explained how to access government support.
By ending the offer of accommodation, employees at AB InBev say that this puts the Ukrainian staff in a difficult situation. Those who decide to remain in Belgium may face some serious problems.
The uncertainty of the war makes it hard for Ukrainians to find private accommodation in the capital as most rental contracts are drawn up for between one and three years. This means that some workers face moving from private to temporary accommodation.
According to Ukrainian testimonies, staff were encouraged to claim social security in Belgium to supplement their Ukrainian income whilst in the country. Claiming social security in Belgium means that Ukrainians must ask their municipality for permission to leave the country, and therefore they may forfeit their social security benefits if they fail to do so.
Belgian rents are often much higher than the average Ukrainian salary ($500 p/m), forcing Ukrainians into dependence on social support. “We were really asked to decide for ourselves before 31 August our own fates,” said Daryna. “We can look for our own housing in Belgium or we can buy tickets back to Ukraine.”
Unfortunately, many of the staff employed by AB InBev come from territories heavily affected by the fighting.
Speaking with staff at the Chernigivske press event in May, one family said they had fled from areas controlled by Russian forces in Mariupol. Others came from cities heavily affected by fighting such as Kyiv and surrounding areas, Kharkiv, Bucha, and others. AB InBev’s Mykolaiv factory sits dangerously close to Russian-occupied Kherson, and some employees would be reluctant to return.
Most of the workers, Olga told The Brussels Times, are keen to continue actively working in Belgium. Several employees, especially in management positions, are currently working under their Ukrainian contracts, with a salary below the Belgian minimum wage.
Some were explicitly told that a move to Belgium would help further their careers and that positions would be offered to workers who took initiative and worked on a volunteer basis.
Communications between HR staff and an anonymous Ukrainian employee, seen by The Brussels Times, confirm that such promises were indeed made to employees. HR personnel explicitly state that the voluntary working conditions of staff who decided to continue to work would conclude with the issuance of new working contracts either in Belgium, Czechia, or Ukraine. Staff also repeatedly assured the Ukrainians that they would not be asked to return to Ukraine before the end of the war.
As time went on, however, no work contracts were announced. In the meantime, Ukrainian AB InBev staff were brought before the press and encouraged to appear in other media publications on behalf of the company.
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Olga claims that she was not aware of any Ukrainian members of staff who were offered a position in Belgium. AB InBev strongly denies this, stating that people had entered into new contracts, but did not give any further figures.
“I know several cases of when Ukrainian refugees applied here in Belgium and were rejected – and those were people who held good positions in Ukraine for many years,” Olga lamented.
According to the employee’s testimony, during the Chernigivske beer brewing PR event in Leuven, Ukrainian officials and top AB InBev management had made direct assurances to Ukrainian staff present that both accommodation and employment would be provided.
“Jason Warner (AB InBev CEO for Europe) said we would receive help for as long as needed. Then the consul (Vsevolod Chentsov, Head of the Mission of Ukraine to the EU) came to us and said that he had a discussion with Jason that jobs and accommodation will be provided to all employees,” staff told The Brussels Times.
AB InBev could not confirm this statement.
"The Mission of Ukraine to the EU cannot confirm the fact of the conversation of Head of the Mission Vsevolod Chentsov with the AB InBev employees regarding any promises of the company on the jobs or accommodation," a Ukrainian spokesperson stated.
"At the same time, we as the Mission of Ukraine to the EU, as well as Ukrainian Embassy in Belgium, are doing our best to help Ukrainians from AB InBev and other Ukrainian citizens under temporary protection to find employment in Belgium," the representation affirmed.
AB InBev hits back
The brewing company has been quick to respond to the allegations presented by The Brussels Times. A spokesperson said that the provision of accommodation to employees had been prolonged several times before the 1 July announcement.
“What we have done is communicate to the families staying under our care in Belgium that we will prolong the accommodation we are offering to 31 August. This follows previous announcements we have made. The initial logistical and accommodation support was planned for three months and has been extended on a rolling basis,” the company explained.
AB InBev states that it undertakes a “continuous assessment of the conflict” and had listened to concerns of people who wished for greater clarity in the mid to long-term.
“People who want to stay in Western Europe on a longer-term basis will receive guidance from us in the coming months on public or private housing, such as availability and long-term solutions in jobs and training,” the company stated.
“We leave it up to our people to assess their home situation in Ukraine. Those who want to can return on a voluntary basis. For those who choose to do so, we will provide financial and logistical support to make the trip home in the best possible circumstances,” a spokesperson added.
AB InBev states that it has 75 Ukrainian employees who have been transferred to European operations.
“We have been incredibly proud of the depth of support we have been able to provide to both our Ukrainian employees and their families, and also the humanitarian response to the war in Ukraine,” AB InBev affirmed.
The Brussels Times has received a Right of Reply from AB InBev in response to this article. You can read it here.