Corporations vs the Disabled in Ukraine

On 17 January 2013, Ukraine’s largest mobile carrier, Kyivstar, announced its inclusion in the National Register of Records of Ukraine, the country’s new purported analogue of the Guinness World Records. Its achievement, the business giant claims, consists of the highest number of calls (just under 273 million) supported by the network in a single day in 2012.

Kyivstar masterfully utilizes its high-tech website and other outreach tools to target Ukraine’s computer-literate audience, positioning the company as a modern, European-style business that operates in transparent and ethical ways. Behind the massive advertising that earned a “Marketing strategy of the year” award in 2012, however, stands a giant corporation that seems to have no qualms about feeding off its most vulnerable customers: the elderly and the disabled. A country of 45 million that is home to survivors of Chernobyl and two devastating wars (World War II and Afghanistan) provides ample human capital for this strategy.

“As a national company created by Ukrainians for Ukrainians we give key attention to social responsibility of our business,” announces Kyivstar in English on its website, adding: “Not only high result of our work is important for us, but also the way of its achievement.” These are noble intentions, but the company needs to try harder if such words are to ring true to the rest of us.

The situation described below is personal, but it is just one of several such stories I came across. My grandmother, a survivor of World War II now partially paralyzed by a stroke, noticed in December that money had vanished from her Kyivstar phone, which she keeps by her bed mostly for emergency purposes. As a prepaid (pay-as-you-go) customer without a contract, she couldn’t find a reason for this, so she asked for help. We discovered that in May 2012, Kyivstar quietly switched her to a daily fee plan that pulled around 200 hryvnias from her account over the next six months. With a monthly pension of about 1 000 hryvnias, this was not a sum she could ignore.

Let’s re-visit the notion of “social responsibility” here. A bed-ridden person discovers that her mobile carrier has been taking money from her for six months after switching her to a daily tariff without her knowledge, putting her in mortal danger of finding her account empty in an emergency. Kyivstar’s website reveals its curious idea of consent: “Starting from 21.05.2012, subscribers using the service under the tariff plan ‘Single price’ will be gradually transferred to tariff plan ‘15 Kopecks’ on their consent, which is confirmed by making any calls after this date.”

When I reached customer support, they insisted that my grandmother would have received a text message announcing the switch. My explanation that she holds Group 1 disability (the highest degree of legally recognized handicap in Ukraine), that her vision is too impaired to read, and that I found no such message in her inbox anyway, left customer service entirely unimpressed. Refusing to refund the money withdrawn or to reinstate the old tariff that met her needs, Kyivstar helpfully recommended she switch to another plan – at an extra cost of 32 hryvnias. The final straw was the suggestion that my paralyzed grandmother bring her passport to a Kyivstar office to submit a written complaint. No supervisor was able to help, and no one ever apologized.

To stop losing money, she agreed to the extra charge, which was withdrawn promptly from her account.

For some of us, it’s easier to let go of 32 hryvnias (about three euro) than to waste time and energy. But for many others, this is a sum that matters. They, however, are precisely the ones whose voice Kyivstar seems willing to ignore. After all, for big businesses three euro matter too: with millions of customers, they quickly add up.

In Ukraine it’s not unusual for the disabled to have to fend for themselves. We all see the lack of proper ramps on the sidewalks, of elevators in the subway, of wheelchair lifts on public transport. Though efforts are being made, the country still has a long way to go before its most vulnerable inhabitants are accommodated and treated with respect – something that is not a part of our past, and must be built anew. The urban infrastructure is slow to change. One would think that highly successful businesses, especially those positioning themselves as modern and socially responsible, would have an easier time doing so.

This is not a one-off story about a paralyzed person’s problem with a phone company. It is a symptom of a larger issue of skewed social priorities, where the most defenseless bear the brunt of disregard – and are easy prey for profits, too.

When I prepared to write this text, a friend sighed: “Please think about publishing it anonymously.” And that is the problem: our fear of oligarchs and businessmen who build their empires with indifference and impunity. Ukraine deserves better. I’d like to think that Kyivstar, for one, will learn to stand behind the important values it professes. Its mission is: “understand, be the best, keep promises, inspire and bring joy”. Let’s start with any of those.

 

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