Sunday, October 28, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Workers in Depressed Urals Stage Hunger Strikes to Get Back Wages

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 28 – “The arbitrariness of factory owners [who openly manipulate the bankruptcy system], the indifference of the authorities, and a legal system that does not defend workers” is prompting ever more working class groups in the extremely depressed Urals region to use hunger strikes to press their case, according to media reports from that area.

            Writing for the news agency this week, Dmitry Remizov says that “the hunger strike is becoming a negative ‘trend’ of the industries of the Urals,” with workers at factories bankrupt or threatened with bankruptcy and who have not been paid using it to press officials, sometimes but not always with success (

            Worker protests in the Urals, Remizov continues, are “not outbursts of dissatisfaction with problems at particular enterprises but the result of the depressed situation in industry” in that region.  Growing wage payment arrears in the factories which remain open and the closing of plants with little thought to the fate of their employees are powering hunger strikes.

            Sometimes these tragedies are the result of “objective” economic factors like shortages of orders, but often they reflect the “arbitrary” use of bankruptcy laws and the authorities unwillingness to press the owners to pay their workers what they are owed, the Rosbalt journalist says.

            According to court records, 849 firms in Sverdlovsk oblast were in bankruptcy proceedings in 2011, and 527 more entered bankruptcy in the first half of 2012. According to the procuracy, there were an additional 68 enterprises which owed some 8,000 workers 409 million rubles (13 million US dollars).

The regional ombudsman, Remizov says, has stated that “the procuracy and the police cannot or do not want to take any steps” regarding such owners.

In many cases, Russia’s federal laws are on their side.  “According to the federal law on bankruptcy, demands for the payment of labor and associated costs are satisfied only after the completion of settling accounts with creditors and tax organizations and after the satisfaction of extraordinary demands for current payments.”

What this “in fact means,” the ombudsman Tatyana Merzlyakova continues, is that the workers get nothing.  “This is a violation of the rights not only of the workers but of the members of their families because typically wage payments are the only source of income for a
worker’s family.”

            Organizers of the wood workers union say that as a result, “people have no money: debts for communal services continue to grow, there is no money for buying fuel for stoves – the majority of workers live in badly constructed housing), there is no change to purchase winter clothes for children, no means for purchasing medicine or obtaining medical help.”

            Workers in a Perm factory now shut down staged a hunger strike on September 28. The next day, Kray Governor Viktor Basargin “personally asked the workers to cease their action having promised them that their back wages would be paid.”  A small amount was given to them by October 6, but only a fraction of what they are owed.

            The workers renewed their hunger strike on October 21, and other workers who find themselves in similar straits have announced plans to join them on November 1.

            Serious wage arrears, a collapsing economy, and the human problems they cause are things Russian President Vladimir Putin has portrayed himself as having overcome.  But for the hunger strikers in the Urals, the president’s PR efforts are falling on deaf ears, even if they are accepted by those who have never looked beyond Moscow’s ring road.

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