The Kremlin takes on workers

Russia's parliament will take up the government's call to drastically lift labor protections in January.

Russia's labor code hasn't changed much since 1971. It still reflects the Soviet Union's claim to be a state run for and by working people. Current laws feature near absolute job security, trade union powers that rival those of management, and the right to company-subsidized vacations, healthcare, and education.

But the Kremlin wants to overhaul Russia's labor code with a set of Dickensian measures that include: abolishing collective bargaining and legalizing the 12-hour work day. This has State Duma deputies balking for the first time since President Vladimir Putin's Unity party took control of parliament a year ago.

Supporters of the bill, submitted by the government to the State Duma earlier this month, say it is necessary to bring Russia's sluggish workforce into the fast-paced, flexible, and globalized 21st century. But opponents, including a couple hundred angry trade unionists demonstrating outside the parliament building yesterday, charge it will drag labor relations back into the 19th-century world of robber barons and powerless, dehumanized workers.

"The Kremlin is simply waging war on organized labor," says Yury Timofeyev, an official of the Steelworker's Union. "They think they can improve the economy at the expense of workers, but this path will only lead to social explosion."

The government had hoped that the Duma, dominated by pro-Kremlin and right-wing parties, would quickly pass the new code. But parliamentarians voted yesterday to postpone any discussion of it until at least January.

"I'm not sure our leaders recognize how unpredictable the response could be to laws like this," says Alexander Lobeikin, deputy head of the Duma's Labor and Social Policy Commission. "You cannot move so rapidly from all-embracing Soviet-style labor protections to wild capitalism."

Among the draft's controversial provisions are measures that would reduce trade unions to merely "consultative" bodies, without the right to maintain offices or personnel on factory premises. Collective bargaining would be replaced by individual agreement between worker and boss. Work time could be increased to up to 56 hours a week, legal maternity leave is slashed from 3 to 1-1/2 years, and procedures for firing an employee are radically simplified.

"The lot of workers under Communism was hellish, no matter what the laws stipulated," says Vladimir Kashyn, a labor specialist at the Expert Institute, an independent Moscow think tank. "This new code sounds very drastic, but it simply reflects existing reality. We have to start with what is real and possible, and that means bulldozing away all the old illusions."

So far, Russia's former Soviet official trade unions - which have 60 million members on paper - have put up only token opposition to the Kremlin's proposals. "Of course we need new laws, and we are willing to work with the government to reform the system," says Irina Vinogradova, chairperson of the Moscow regional Union of Scientific Workers. "But there should be proper consultations with the trade unions. They are trying to ram these measures down our throats."

More serious resistance has come from the country's handful of independent unions, who say they will launch a wave of open-ended strikes and protests if the labor code is adopted.

"The old official unions are too accustomed to being servants of the state, and they have no interest in defending workers," says Oleg Babich, secretary of Zashita, an alternative union that represents about 50,000 industrial and scientific workers. "If this awful law goes through, I'm sure it will only succeed in giving a big impetus to genuine union organizing in Russia. You can't destroy people's rights through legislation."

Experts say at least half of Russians work in the shadow economy, where they enjoy no legal protections. According to the state statistics committee, the average wage in industry is 1,750 rubles (about $60) per month, and 1,100 rubles (about $40) in the service sector. Although the official rate of joblessness is a very low 2.7 percent, the International Labor Organization calculates the real level at some five times higher.

Russia suffers from a vast overhang of "hidden unemployment" - workers who still retain their Soviet-era jobs, but often receive no salaries for months or even years.

"The new labor code will put an end to this by making it easy to sack superfluous workers," says Mr. Kashyn. "That may sound brutal, but it will bring the problem into the open, where it can be dealt with. The main thing is to encourage economic growth."

Speaking to workers in a steel plant earlier this month, Mr. Putin warned that the era of state paternalism was coming to an end, and that people would have to learn to stand on their own feet. But he promised reforms would lead to fresh investment in Russia's moribund industrial sector and, eventually, higher living standards. "Labor has been undervalued for too long," he said. "We need reasonable policies to create stability and investor confidence."

But critics say the Kremlin's hard line on labor will scuttle hopes of economic growth, not improve them.

"You can't build prosperity by liquidating peoples' rights," says Vyacheslav Sinyayev, a senior labor expert with the State Duma. "This kind of regressive legislation will upset our social stability, and that's a very dangerous thing to play with. By postponing debate on this issue, the Duma is clearly signalling the government to stop insisting on this plan and to fundamentally rethink it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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