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Hungry for Back Pay

Unemployment in Russia has hit an estimated 6.4 million or 8.5, the Moscow Times reported on Friday.  More dismissals are expected in April and government officials fear that joblessness might hit levels of the 1990s.  Unemployment in that turbulent decade was around 9.2 million.

In addition to layoffs, MT also noted that wage arrears rose for a second month. Vedomosti reports that Russian workers are owed 8 billion rubles in back wages, 16.1 percent higher than January. This is the national average.  Wage arrears are even higher in some provinces, particularly in Siberia.  In Omsk, for example, back wages climbed to 7.5 million rubles or 26.5 percent.  Other regions are following this trend.  As Regnum reports,

For comparison, the amount of wage arrears on 1 March in Novosibirsk stood at 230.5 million rubles, in Krasnoyarsk more than 700 million rubles, in Altai 178.4 million, in Irkutsk 184 million, in Kuzbass 183 million.  On the whole, back wages grew in eight of the twelve regions in Siberia.  A reduction of arrears were only registered in four regions.  The highest increase was in Omsk (more than a quarter) then in Tuva (20.1%), Tomsk (11.9%) and in Altai 10,5%).

Some workers are tired of waiting. And for good reason.  Sixteen workers at the Ural Mountains Steel Mill held a brief hunger strike until management agreed on paying some of their back wages.  The action was small but effective.  And though the strikers  insisted that their action was not about fomenting “class warfare,” given statement from the plant’s director, Sergei Khomyanin, class conflict appears inevitable outcome of the current conditions.  “They should be put in prison and go on hunger strike there,” he said. “Hunger strikes by their very nature are extremist.”

But as the Moscow Times explains:

The hunger strikers say they have been scrupulous about sticking to the law. They kept working and checked the Criminal Code to make sure they were doing nothing illegal. There have been no other outward signs of protest.

Negrebetskikh, a rolling mill operator, said he felt something had to be done. He lives with his wife and two children in a 44-square-meter apartment near the factory, where chimneys pump brown and gray smoke into the mountain air. In September, he was making up to 18,000 rubles per month before tax. Now, he is earning 5,900.

“The 5,000 rubles my wife makes working in a shop means the kids don’t go hungry,” he said.

After tax, their joint income is about 8,000 rubles. After 2,000 rubles in fixed utility bills and a 3,000 ruble monthly payment on a $1,000 fridge, they have 3,000 rubles left.

Treats like trips to the movie theater or candy for his children are unaffordable. “Sausage is now a luxury,” Negrebetskikh said. “It doesn’t matter to me if I go on hunger strike, I’m hungry anyway.”

For five days last week, Negrebetskikh slept on inflatable mattresses on the floor of the musty Union Hall at the plant with 15 other hunger strikers, sustaining himself on juice, tea and cigarettes. They hope more workers will join in, but support is patchy. Even the workers’ union has distanced itself from the strike.

Some night-shift workers voiced their support as they left the factory on a freezing morning this week. Others were apathetic or angry that the strike might make a bad situation worse.

“In my mill, they are frightened like hares,” said Pyotr, 33, who withheld his last name because he had “three kids to feed.”

“What can we do? Just sit and wait for better times!” he said, his hand shaking as he lit a cigarette. “If you strike, they’ll kick you out the gate. There’s nothing for you there.”

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