The first article listed in JRL #84 (4/9/06) has been eating at me for days. When I first read it, I said to myself, “I must comment on this.” But other things got in the way. A few days passed. Yet it continues to eat at me for its utter ridiculousness and ideological vomit. The article in question is “A New Land of Opportunity” by Peter Gumbel of Time Europe Magazine. In a nutshell, Gumbel joins in taking swipes against the French students who protested the Contrat Premier Embauche or first-job contract law. The French law would have allowed youths under 26 years of age to be summarily fired, for no reason by virtue of their age. The law was discriminatory because it essentially gave French youths no job security. French youths were correct to stand against it. That said, the issue in France is a complex one and I don’t profess to understand all its nuances. For a good analysis of it and why the students won see Doug Ireland’s comment.
What I couldn’t understand about all of this is the vehemence of many news reports and commentators on this issue. As Ireland points out, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting did a study outlining much of the poison spit onto the pages and screens by American journalists.
The only reason why I mention the French case here is because Gumbel uses Russia as a means to heap more scorn on French youths. His tactic is an old one. Charge the French youth with privilege, laziness, and shame because if you look at their Russian counterparts things are much worse and you don’t see them complaining. No, what you have is good old Puritan work ethic and the American Dream russified. Gumbel writes:
There is zero job security in Yekaterinburg. France has a plethora of long-term, short-term, temporary and limited work contracts that are at the heart of the current dispute. Russia in theory has a civil code that lays down workers’ rights, but in practice you get hired the same way you get fired, at the snap of a finger. Pr?carit?, the word that brings millions of young French people out into the streets, is the norm there. Forget about a pension big enough to retire on—you have 40 years to figure that out. Health care is more problematic, since getting sick puts you on the fast track to poverty. If you’re unlucky, your employer runs out of money to pay you. If you’re really unlucky, you get caught in the middle of an extortion racket. But if it all works out—as it increasingly does—you get to shape your own future in a way French kids would envy.
First of all, there’s plenty of work. Youth unemployment is about 23% in France, and almost 1 in 10 school leavers does not have a permanent job five years after taking the baccalaureate. In Yekaterinburg, being out of work is a luxury few can afford. The demand for energetic young people is so high that ads for the best jobs scroll along the bottom of prime-time programs on local TV. A free newspaper with job openings, the Urals Work Weekly, would be as thick as the yellow pages if such a phone book existed. Russia hasn’t yet discovered equal opportunity laws, so most jobs stipulate that only those under 30 or 35 need apply. Then there’s the range of opportunity. Want to become a sushi chef, a marketing consultant or a bank manager? No problem. No previous experience required. Nobody else in the country knows how to do those jobs either. Or why not set up your own business? There’s no shortage of people willing to lend you money. (But watch out for those extortionists.)
To quote South Park’s Mrs. Broflovski, “Wha-Wha-What?!” You mean French youths should work for shit just so they can have employment? Aren’t the work conditions that you find in Yekaterinburg what the French are trying to prevent? I personally don’t see any glory, let alone nobility, in exploitation. But let’s forget that and focus on the idyllic picture Gumbel is painting about labor in Russia. He seems to think that “opportunity”, an ideological construct for sure, somehow translates into material well being. He also forgets that the good jobs in Russia are also dependent upon having connections. So if you want to be an investment banker without any experience, you better have good connections to get that job. But according to Gumbel, a job’s a job and people shouldn’t complain because after all they could be unemployed. As he writes in relation to one Tatiana Bildyug, a former accountant at a uranium factory cum “development director” at a shopping mall. “The pay’s not much better, but the job is a lot more dynamic and fun, she says.”
In all, French youths need to remember: “You don’t go hungry if you’re unemployed” like the Russians. And do you know why Peter? It’s not by the good graces of the capitalists. It’s because the French flood the streets to protect their existing rights.
Of course you can have a good piece of right wing, pro-capitalist trash without conjuring the C-word. “It could all go wrong [for Russian youths], of course. Even if it does, Yekaterinburg’s youngsters are unlikely to copy the French and stage rallies demanding that the government provide long-term job security. Russians have already been there and done that. It was called communism, and after 74 years of failing to make it work, they dumped it.” Since many Gumbel’s subjects were five years old in 1991, I don’t see how they can “dump” what they didn’t know. I never met many five year old revolutionaries. Gumbel’s point however is more threatening. In his formulation any attempt by working people to fight for their financial well being, something that the business leaders he so admires does everyday through legal and extra-legal means, amounts to “communism.”
Thankfully, the Moscow News has given us an idea of what the labor situation in Russia is like.
There are about 3000 recruiting agency and job sites on the RuNet (Russian Internet). Even a cursory check shows that employers prefer to hire people under age 35, ethnic Russians, and ready to work for low wages. In other words, contrary to the Constitution, there is severe segregation or discrimination by age and ethnicity on the labor market. Also, there is more and more discrimination on the grounds of ideology – corporate ideology, that is: e.g., no employment for specialists who have worked for competing companies. Meanwhile, people over 35 (incidentally, no longer active reservists of the Armed Forces) have to live not according to the laws or the Labor Code, but survive according to criminal or semi-criminal laws that prevail on the labor market. Furthermore, since law enforcement agencies invariably turn a blind eye to the situation, this segregation can be seen as a form of state policy on the labor market. It is essential to note that such practices are nonexistent in developed countries. Should someone in New York or London or Montreal or Berlin post an ad saying, e.g., “Wanted: an engineer, age 22 to 30,” the prosecutor will, first of all, take a very close look at the site or the newspaper where the ad has been published (a big fine will be imposed) and will then go for the employer (who will face a long prison sentence).
Like Alabama or Georgia in the past, Russia today has “slave labor.” Not so long ago, two reports on human trafficking and modern-day slavery in Russia were published. One was commissioned by the UN and prepared by a team of Russian experts, while the other came from the State Duma Interagency Working Group. According to these reports, Russia and countries of the former USSR place second, after Southeast Asian nations, in the scale of the slave trade: Up to 1.5 million migrants are working in Russia in conditions “close to slavery.” These are, as a general rule, non-Slavs (also under 35). “Slave labor” is used not only by unlicensed shadow operators in the construction sector or impoverished housing maintenance services, but also by businessmen on the Forbes billionaires list. As a rule, these people work without pay, enough for a cup of soup a day.
There is simply no way that Russia can do without decisive measures on its labor market, e.g., the introduction of the minimum hourly wage, like in the G7 countries, mandatory for all employers, state or private companies, including joint ventures. Seven-and-a-half dollars an hour as in the United States or 4.5 pounds an hour as in the UK may be unrealistic right now, but $1 per hour would be quite realistic to begin with. Incidentally, this measure was recommended by the World Bank. At the same time, failure to pay wages that are due should carry tough penalties for company directors – up to 15 or 20 year terms of imprisonment. As for discrimination on the Russian labor market, there is no need to pass any new laws: The authorities only need to enforce the existing laws. As soon as the authors of “wanted: men only” or “wanted: under 35” or “wanted: company loyalists” ads begin to be prosecuted, everything will immediately fall into place.
Finally, in order to fight unemployment effectively, Russia must end its addiction to oil and use a part of the Stabilization Fund to achieve a breakthrough in the real sector of the economy, which will create new jobs. This is not going to be easy of course as many high ranking officials owe the oil pipeline their fortunes, but it would not hurt to think about the country’s future. As for the demographic situation, the only way out is to legalize migration and simplify procedure for acquisition of citizenship by ethnic Russians – all those who will want to acquire it. But most important, provide living conditions and living standards in which no one would want to leave Russia.
Is this the supposed “land of opportunity” that French youths should be envious of? Of course! Anti-labor commentators like Gumbel relish in such labor conditions, but not because they provide workers with better living and working conditions, pay, dignity, and security. Labor conditions in Russia are optimal because it grantees all these for employers! Low wages, the ability to dispose of labors at will, no enforcement of existing labor laws, weak unions, not to mention slave labor only increase the profit margin. Such is the story of capital and labor and despite the platitudes of Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis and Thatcher’s TINA.
French youths shouldn’t be taking a page from their Yekaterinburg counterparts. On the contrary, Yekaterinburg youths should take a page from their French counterparts and fight for the rights that the Russian Constitution and laws give them.