Friday, May 5, 2017

Unpaid Back Wages Again Leading Cause of Rise in Labor Actions in Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 5 – Workers in Russia are increasingly engaged in various forms of labor action, although most of these are not monitored by the government or attended to by the media or politicians; and ever more of these actions are the result of growing wage arrears, again a trend that official statistics underreport because they do not include the “black” economy.

            In March, Ivan Ovsyannikov says, Rosstat reported that less than one percent of all workers had money owed to them for their work, some 63,000 in all, and that their unpaid back wages amounted to only 3.6 billion rubles (60 million US dollars) (провэд.рф/society/social-organizations/42011-kak-lyudi-bopyutsya-za-svoyu-zapplatu-v-possii.html).

            Experts and activists say that the real numbers are far larger and even recall the horrific cases of the 1990s. As evidence, they point the increasing number of strikes and other actions, including violence against business owners and suicides, that workers have undertaken in the hopes of getting the money they are owed. 

            The journalist cites Elena Gerasimov, the head of the Lawyers for Labor Rights Association, as saying that the primary reason wage arrears are underreported now is that about 15 million workers are now employed in the “black” sector of the economy. They are not counted by the state for most purposes, and they enjoy far fewer legal protections.

            The aristocracy of Russian workers now consists of those employed by foreign corporations. Below them are those employed by companies with foreign ties.  And at the very bottom are those in the “black” segment of the marketplace who are working for other companies rather than for the state.  The latter arrangement gives workers some leverage.

            There is one major difference between the wage arrears of the 1990s and those now. In the earlier period, most of the wages not paid were simply pocketed by managers and owners for their own purposes. Now, in many cases, owners are putting the money they keep from workers back into the company, leading many workers to assume that this is just the way things now are.

            Recently, the Moscow Center for Economic and Political Reforms said that last year there were 1141 cases of worker conflict, 79.4 percent of which involved wage arrears. Not all these cases led to strikes, but in the 419 which did, slightly over half – 54 percent – were about workers not having been paid. These figures were twice as bad as three years earlier.

            When workers strike or complain to government officials, they are often successful in getting the money they are owed.  More important, activists say, almost all successful efforts become models for others in neighboring areas. That is because success spreads via word of mouth given that the official media often doesn’t report such actions.

            One intriguing finding of the center’s research: ethnic Russians are far less likely to take action to get the pay they are owed than are Central Asian gastarbeiters.  According to Ovsvannikov, the reason is this: Russians can quit and change jobs far more easily than can the Central Asians. The latter thus have few choices but to stand and fight.

            Such labor actions rarely attract the support of opposition parties because they see little chance of politicizing the movement, even though many of these parties talk constantly about the need for the refrigerator to defeat the television.  They are making a mistake, activists say, because worker solidarity by itself has a political meaning.

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