Tag Archives: labor rights

Ilya Matveev, “The ‘Welfare’ State Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This”

Originally published in Russian at: http://russ.ru/Mirovaya-povestka/Social-nee-nekuda

The “Welfare” State Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This
Ilya Matveev

The 1993 Constitution boldly declares the Russian Federation a welfare state. [1] This definition is not found in every modern constitution. You will not find it in the basic laws of Poland (1997), Finland (1999) or Switzerland (1999). Among the developed countries, it seems, only Germany, France and Spain have the constitutional status of welfare states. [2]

In Russia, however, this proud moniker has always played a special role, and during the Putin period it has been even more significant. For the past decade, official propaganda has been built around “social commitments,” which the government, allegedly, fulfills and exceeds. (Moreover, it is assumed that social progress should compensate for the lack of civil rights, about which pesky humans rights activists at home and observers abroad constantly remind the regime.)

Powerful organizations and tens of thousands of “welfare” specialists stand watch over the Russian welfare state. If you counted the numbers of people on staff at the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), its member unions and think thanks, the Russian Trilateral Commission, and other institutions and organizations engaged in the business of “social dialogue” and “decent living standards,” you would end up with several tens of thousands of people. It is possible that Russia has only one competitor in the world in terms of its elaborate “welfare” bureaucracy—China.

The system of trade unions we inherited from the Soviet Union is still remarkably integrated into all levels of government. Thus, for example, there are eight trade union representatives in the current State Duma, and MP Andrei Isayev, who sits on the executive council of the ruling United Russia party, serves as a deputy chairman of the FNPR on a voluntary basis.

The “welfare” bureaucracy is provided a permanent stage on which it habitually does battle with notional “internal enemies”—the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, the Institute of Contemporary Development (a Medvedev-affiliated think thank) and its Strategy 2020 plan, other neoliberal think tanks, and employer lobbying organizations. In this noisy fight (which never, however, exceeds certain bounds), the “welfare” bloc often wins, because Putin frequently comes down on its side. The relations among the FNPR (the main mobilizing force in Putin’s Popular Front), the welfare wing of United Russia, and Putin resemble a veritable “symphony of powers.” It would seem that the welfare state in Russia has a bright future ahead of it.

What is really going on?

It is clear that reality on the ground has little to do with existing laws and even less to do with the solemn declarations of the authorities and the union bosses. And yet in this text I would like to focus on the legislative provisions that make up the legal architecture of our welfare state, as guaranteed by the Constitution and Putin’s programmatic articles.

The Minimum Wage

In Russia, there is no minimum wage as such. The statutory minimum wage—whose acronym in Russian is “MROT” (minimal’nyi razmer oplaty truda)—is currently 4,600 rubles a month [approx. 114 euros], which is 67% of the legal monthly subsistence minimum, now set at 6,800 rubles [approx. 169 euros].

A situation where the state-guaranteed minimum wage is below the subsistence minimum is an economic absurdity. The government declares, in effect, that this wage must not be less than a certain amount, but even by its own calculations no one can live on this amount of money. Then what, exactly, does this amount represent? Where does it comes from and what do we need it for?

Certain issues, of course, are raised by the amount of the subsistence minimum (which in any case is higher than that of the MROT). It is calculated based on the value of the “consumer goods basket,” whose particular charms (one overgarment should last a person eight years, fifty rubles a month on entertainment, etc.) are well known.

As a result of some complex shuffling, the cost of the consumer goods basket will be increased by 4.2% in 2013 to a whopping 6,016 rubles a month [approx. 150 euros]. It is clear that this figure, the subsistence minimum and the MROT have no basis in reality and cannot serve either as regulatory instruments or indices of poverty.

And yet a minimum wage is guaranteed by the Constitution (Article 7), just like the status of the “welfare” state itself. In fact, this clause of our Constitution is implemented to the same extent as the entire 1936 “Stalin” Constitution.

By comparison, in France, our partner in the “welfare” states group, the minimum wage is about 1,400 euros per month (9.2 euros per hour for a thirty-five-hour work week). In the United States, a country where entire institutions are busy trying to prove that the minimum wage is economically and socially counterproductive, there is nevertheless a minimum wage, which is set at 7.25 USD per hour (or about $1,300 a month) at the federal level. Individual states have the right to set their own minimum wage, but it cannot be lower than the federal minimum.

Interestingly, the Health and Social Development Ministry estimates the cost of raising the MROT to the level of the subsistence minimum at 55 billion rubles [approx. 1.368 billion euros], while the Ministry of Finance says this would cost 60 billion rubles [approx. 1.492 billion euros]. Nearly 300 billion rubles [approx. 7.46 billion euros] were spent on the notorious APEC summit in Vladivostok, but spending six times less than that amount to increase the MROT does not figure in the government’s plans. In 2013, the MROT will be set at 5,200 rubles [approx. 129 euros]—that is, it will still be lower than the subsistence minimum. And, as the Finance Ministry proudly notes, this figure will be achieved without additional budget expenditures.

By pursuing this policy, the authorities not only demonstrate that a situation where the minimum wage is below the threshold for physical survival is, in their opinion, all right. They also stubbornly refuse to implement their own laws, namely, the Labor Code, which contains a clause stating that the MROT may not be lower than the subsistence minimum.

It is also significant that the debate about the minimum wage in Russia is focused on the level of absolute poverty and physical survival (although the MROT, despite Isayev’s endless chatter, has not reached even this level over the past ten years), whereas in Europe the focus is on achieving a “living wage,” not a “subsistence wage.” A living wage is meant to provide a relatively decent standard of living, not merely ward off death by starvation. However, when it comes to the APEC Summit and the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the Russian “welfare” state has no intention of protecting its working citizens even from death by starvation. [3]


In Russia, strikes are banned for all intents and purposes. Despite a partial change in the law in 2011, the rules on strikes and labor disputes virtually eliminate the possibility of legal protests by workers.

For some categories of workers—railroad workers and air traffic controllers—strikes are prohibited directly. For all other categories of workers, the ban is not direct, but no less effective for all that.

Protest strikes against government economic and social policy, solidarity strikes, and strikes to demand union recognition are illegal in Russia. Despite the fact that they are all mentioned in the seminal 87th Convention of the International Labour Organization, “Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise,” which was ratified by Russia, it is prohibited to carry out such strikes in Russia. The government has ignored related ILO recommendations.

Russian workers can strike only as part of a collective bargaining dispute (this is even enshrined in Article 37 of the Constitution). However, the procedure for collective bargaining disputes is so complicated that the courts can always find and do find collective bargaining units guilty of various violations. Employees must notify the employer of their intention to strike five to seven days in advance (until 2011, this period was ten days). During this time, the employer has the right to appeal to the courts, which can rule the announced strike—that is, a strike that has not yet begun—illegal.

The impact of these extremely repressive rules is as follows. In 2008, according to official data from Rosstat, there were four strikes in Russia; in 2009, one; in 2010, none; and in 2011, two. Independent analysts, such as those at the Center for Social and Labor Rights, register hundreds of labor disputes annually, some of which involve work stoppages, but the vast majority of these occur within the legal gray zone. Under current law, it is almost impossible to carry out a full-fledged strike, and the collective bargaining procedure is so complex that, according to the Center, “nine out of ten [labor] protests take place in ways not stipulated by labor laws, while only one in ten adopt legal forms.” [4]


A state-guaranteed minimum wage and the freedom to engage in labor disputes, including strikes, are the foundations of the welfare state. In Russia, these social rights are not implemented in practice, nor are they even fully guaranteed by law. Since Putin has come to power, the FNPR and the government’s “welfare” bloc have neither increased the MROT to the minimum subsistence level nor simplified the procedure for collective bargaining disputes and strikes, which was made extremely complicated, in fact, by the new Labor Code adopted in 2001. Workers in Russia are deprived both of a minimum guaranteed income and effective means for raising wages to acceptable levels. This makes our country more of an anti-welfare state than a welfare state.

In fact, none of the things enumerated in Article 7 of the Russian Federation Constitution—“labor and the health of the people”; “guaranteed minimum wages and salaries”; “state support […] to the family, maternity, paternity and childhood, to disabled persons and the elderly”; a “system of social services, […] state pensions, allowances and other social security guarantees”—are fully provided, even by the letter of the law, despite the massive bureaucracy employed only in solving these problems.

That is why the slogan “For the welfare state!” chanted at rallies held by a broad coalition of Russian leftist groups, independent trade unions, social movements, educators and students on October 7, the World Day for Decent Work (typically, the FNPR limited its marking of the occasion to conferences and round tables), was an offensive rather than defensive tactic. By and large, there has never been a welfare state in Russia, and this is our difference from Europe. The twentieth-century Russian state was socialist, and over the past twenty years it has been a post-socialist state, not a welfare state. Building a genuine welfare state is our primary task, and it can only be achieved by a broad and sustained mobilization of workers organized into trade unions and social movements.

Ilya Matveev is a postgraduate student in political theory at Moscow State University and an activist with the Russian Socialist Movement.


1. The exact term in Russian is a “social” (sotsial’noe) state: “The Russian Federation is a social State whose policy is aimed at creating conditions for a worthy life and a free development of man.”

2. V.E. Chirkin, “Konstitutsiia i sotsial’noe gosudarstvo,” Konstitutsionnyi vestnik, 1 (19) (2008).

3. According to official statistics, around 13% of the Russian population—approximately 18 million people—live below the poverty line. But this calculation is based, yet again, on the official subsistence minimum, unlike in the EU countries, where the poverty line is defined as 60% of median disposal household income. In Russia, the average monthly salary is 27,000 rubles [approx. 670 euros]. 60% of that figure is around 16,000 rubles: around forty to fifty percent of the Russian people have a monthly income of less than this amount. Thus, if the poverty line in Russia were calculated according to EU standards, half its population would be deemed impoverished. In addition, according to the FNPR’s statistics, around one to two million Russians have an over-the-table wage that is less than the MROT, that is, less than 4,600 rubles a month. And this despite the fact that, by law, employers are supposed to be fined by the authorities for paying their employees less than the minimum wage.

4. For more details, see Elena Gerasimova, “Zakonodatel’stvo Rossii o kollektivnykh trudovykh sporakh i zabastovkakh: problemy i napravleniia sovershenstvovaniia,” Trudovoe pravo v Rossii i za rubezhom, 1 (2012). According to the Center for Social and Labor Rights, there were 262 labor disputes in 2011 in Russia; 91 of them involved work stoppages—that is, they were essentially strikes. These statistics were compiled from reports in the mass media, but since many such conflicts are not reported by the press, their actual numbers are probably much higher.

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Barracks and Unpaid Wages: How Ukrainian Migrant Workers Are Treated by Euro 2012 Construction Contractors

The illegal hostel for “guest workers” was built only a few years ago, before “the Euro.” But the floor in the barracks is as black as in century-old homes. There is dirt everywhere here – no traces of cleaning or compliance with sanitary norms. A narrow corridor leads to tiny rooms filled with crudely assembled cots.

The Barracks of Olympic Stadium
Andriy Manchuk

“It’s like this. You’re workers. You pour concrete forms. You’ve been hired to work at the construction site with our crew, and you’re moving into the barracks. Does everyone got that?” our guides instruct us.

They are real concrete layers. They have agreed to show us the living and working conditions of the people building the main venue for the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship.

We stand amidst old garages on the shore of a fetid sewage drain only two hundred meters from Lybidskaya metro station – almost in the city center by Kyiv standards. Here, behind a fence, is a two-story shack inhabited by construction workers. Employees of a security company guard the entrance to the lot. We must try to not engage them in conversation and immediately go to the barracks under the cover of our “foreman.”

According to the workers, this illegal hostel for “guest workers” [zarobitchani – see Translator’s Note, below] was built only a few years ago, before “the Euro.” But the floor in the barrack is as black as in century-old homes. There is dirt everywhere here – no traces of cleaning or compliance with even the most primitive sanitary norms. A narrow corridor leads to tiny rooms filled with crudely assembled two-storey bunks. Each of these small rooms contains sixteen such beds, but, according to the workers, sometimes there have not been enough beds, and people have slept on the floor, using their own clothes or a blanket for a mattress. It is daytime now, and most of the room’s inhabitants are at work – on the construction sites at Olympic Stadium and the new passenger terminal at Boryspil Airport.

The poor sanitation and poverty of the room to which we have been brought are stunning. The wooden bunks, fitted with dirty mattresses, are broken in several places. There is garbage on the floor and a tin filled with cigarette buts. The nightstands between the beds are covered with dirty plates, packets of instant soup, and pieces of dried bread. The air in the room is stuffy, although the window is open. There is also garbage piled outside the window in which rats are scurrying. But beyond the fence topped with barbed wire you can see golden domes lying lined up on the ground: next door, work is under way on the largest cathedral in Ukraine, and there is a brisk trade in church paraphernalia going on there.

“Look what our people eat,” our “foreman” Vasily Pastushenko tells us as he opens the nightstands for us. “Poor people live here. The employers promise money to the workers, but then they just screw them over. They owe each of us three and half thousand hryvnias [approximately 350 euros], but they gave us a hundred hryvnias each in cash. And that was before the holidays! People didn’t even have enough money to travel home. And they also deduct twenty hryvnias a day for this ‘housing’ here.”

There is a latrine instead of a toilet in the barracks – several closed buckets in a separate room. It is impossible to cook here: the workers use only an electric water-heating wand as they are forbidden to use gas-powered heating devices. A few years ago, seven guest workers died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a similar shack near Kyiv.

“This is how we live. We envy Yulia Tymoshenko – her prison is like paradise compared with our shack. It’s never heated, and there is no insulation. In the winter, there would be frost on the walls in the mornings, and everyone went to work sick, some even with a high temperature,” the workers tell us as we photograph the room.

We had very little time to do this: a few minutes later the commandant ran into the room. He had a black eye and had obviously been drunk since morning (although the guards forbid workers from drinking in the barracks). He took us for fired workers and yelled at us, pointing to some other people’s bags.

“You don’t fucking live here anymore! Take your bags and scram. I’ll give you ten minutes.”

“We had money deducted from our wages for accommodation. But we haven’t been paid yet. You have no right to kick people out,” our foreman tried to argue. But everyone headed for the door. Conflicts with the security guards had never ended well for the workers.

Vasily Pastushenko, a native of the town of Uman, heads a group of fifteen guest workers hired for construction of Olympic Stadium who were deceived by their employers.

“They promised us mountains of gold. They practically said that [Ukrainian prime minister Nikolai] Azarov would pay us our wages. The facility, a parking lot at the stadium, has to be finished by the first of May, but they’re already behind schedule and have hired a bunch of people. Moreover, it’s not the firm itself that is doing this, but subcontractors or even sub-sub-subcontractors,” Vasily laughs. “They’re the ones who do the hiring, but the firm is out of the picture as it were. We go to them to get paid, but they don’t even know us, although we built everything here.”

“Everything here is muddled. They say the contracts for Euro 2012 were handed out in exchange for huge kickbacks – up to twenty-five percent of the total value of the contracts. Well, in order to ‘recapture’ all this money, they economize on us, the workers. They hire us without contracts or work agreements, scam us every step of the way, and house us in bestial conditions. At the same time, millions are being embezzled here. When I saw our accountant driving a Mitsubishi Pajero SUV, I immediately realized we wouldn’t see our money.”

We go with the workers to the construction site, getting in using the same legend that we are “concrete layers.” On the hill above the bowl of Olympic Stadium, where the Euro 2012 finals will take place, several hundred men, nervously urged on by supervisors, work right next to a precipice. It is a sight reminiscent of the building of the Great Pyramids.

“Look over there: a middleman has just brought some new workers. And those are the rescuers over there,” Vasily points. “Lest someone gets into an accident. While we’ve been working here, several workers have been killed at the site.”

I immediately remembered how the leader of a guest workers union had told us in an interview about injuries at Olympic Stadium. According to him, employers do not even know who is working for them, a fact that came to light only after the tragedies

“And work safety? Does anyone monitor it?”

“Work safety,” Vasily grins ironically. “A supervisor came to my crew once, to give us safety instructions as it were. He mumbled something to those who were present and then made as if to leave. I say to him, ‘Wait a second until all our people have gathered.’ He says to me, ‘Fuck off. You can tell them yourself.’

“No one complies with safety regulations when working at heights. We work without safety straps, and no one requires it. If someone is injured, then formally he didn’t work here. There was a kiosk at the site that sold all kinds of food at inflated prices and even beer – this at a construction site, where alcohol always leads to injuries. But we were issued only gloves and crappy boots, and even then not enough for everyone. It’s pointless to talk about the quality of work done in such conditions.”

We walk around the construction site, and the workers show us metal containers, piled with heaps of garbage.

“Look, people are living in each of these boxes. Right here on the construction site. We’ve spent the night here ourselves more than once. One of our guys became seriously ill, but he couldn’t move out or pay for himself. And we had no money to help – they don’t pay our wages. So they came to throw him out,” says Vasily.

“I asked them to wait a day. I said I’d come from my shift [the next day] and bring them money for him. But they wouldn’t have any of it.”

Those who do not want to live in the barracks often settle in illegal hostels for guest workers in private flats. Two such flats – separate ones for men and women – are located on my street, on the outskirts of Kyiv’s Pozniaky neighborhood. Olympic Stadium construction workers familiarized us with the interiors of these flophouses, which charge twenty to thirty hryvnias a day [i.e., up to three euros]. Each room contains ten beds. However, married couples cannot live together, and tenants are not allowed to enter the flat after midnight, listen to music or have guests (even their own husbands or wives) without special permission from the owners. Living with children is also strictly prohibited. Violators are evicted or turned over to the neighborhood police inspector.

There is a similar dormitory on Decembrists Street, in a building where the honest-fisted Klitschko brothers once lived, and it is far from the only such place in the blocks of the Darnytsia district. According to the guest workers, this is a systematized business nowadays. The owners of the apartment hostels are usually connected to the people who supply labor to the construction sites. They often are one and the same people, and find it easy to come to an agreement with the police. If you have seen newspaper ads for high-paying jobs with low-cost housing included, then likely as not they were ads for barracks and construction sites where wages are not paid.

In six weeks’ time, millions of TV viewers will gaze at the bowl of Olympic Stadium, where VIPs from all over Europe will gather. It is important that they know about the living and working conditions of the people who built these football facilities. It is important that they see Ukraine not through the gloss of tourist brochures, but the way it looks in the gloomy workers’ barracks in the center of the capital.

Photos by Ilya Derevyanko


“The ruling class needs only one thing – profits, profits and more profits,” Vladimir Cheremis said at the protest rally. “Thanks to this scandal, the whole world can see what Ukrainian capitalism is like.”


“Nothing to Lose”: Euro 2012 Constructions Workers Protest
Andriy Manchuk

“I have never spoken to reporters. This is the first time in my life,” a construction worker confusedly told a Ukrainian TV reporter. The man was one of the people who have been building facilities at flashy Olympic Stadium, where the matches of the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship begin tomorrow.

On June 7, activists from the Social Movement [Sotsialnyi Rukh] coalition held a protest on Kreshchatyk against the systematic violation of the labor rights of the “guest workers” [zarobitchani] who built the entire infrastructure for Euro 2012 – from stadiums and terminals to highway overpasses and parking garages. As they fabulously enriched themselves on this nationally important construction project, subcontractors failed to pay an entire crew of concrete workers who built the parking facility at Olympic Stadium – a practice, common at most Kyiv construction sites, that massively victimizes workers who have been hired illegally.

Dmitry Tkachuk, a concrete worker from the village of Tucha in the Vinnytsia region of Ukraine, told a Gazeta.ua reporter about the builders of Ukraine’s main stadium live and work.

“Three months ago I came to Kyiv looking for work. At the train station, our crew of fifteen people was hired to work at Olympic Stadium. The man who hired us introduced himself as Ivan Ivanovich [i.e., “John Johnson”]. He promised us mountains of gold. I figured I could earn eight or nine thousand hryvnias. We live in a barracks. There is a complete lack of sanitation, one toilet for everybody. To go there in the morning you have to wait in a long queue. The first two weeks we worked we weren’t paid a kopeck. At first we paid for food with the money we’d brought with us. Then we sold off our mobile phones to pay for food. Also, we would from Lybidskaya metro station to Olympic Stadium [to save money]. Most of the guys returned home without a kopeck to show for their efforts, but I can’t tell my parents about this. We’re now working for 150 hryvnias a day [i.e., approx. 15 euros a day]. We send a hundred home and chip in twenty hryvnias a day for food for each of us. We have thirty hryvnias left over for all other expenses… We have nothing to lose.”

Ukrainian and foreign journalists gazed wide-eyed at the workers, as if they were aliens from an unknown planet.

“You say you’re owed forty thousand hryvnias [approx. 4,000 euros]. But in our line of work one shooting trip costs more than that,” a TV reporter said to a construction worker with a smile.

In response, the workers talked about their daily lives. A 19-year-old woman who had been hired to cook was raped in the barracks recently. And workers literally have to beat subcontractors into paying them – with fists and iron bars.

The protesters symbolically chained themselves to the gates of the fan zone, whence foreign tourists looked at them in amazement. Vitaly Mikhonko, leader of Hammer and Sickle, a trade union for guest construction workers, said that on June 8 Polish workers would block the tournament’s opening ceremony in Warsaw, demanding payment of back wages. By agreement with its Polish comrades, the Social Movement will block the final match of Euro 2012 in Kyiv if the Ukrainian Cabinet fails to meet their demands –immediately pay all back wages to workers, ensure normal living conditions, strictly observe work safety rules, and sign contracts with everyone employed at the construction sites, under the supervision of independent trade unions.

“The ruling class needs only one thing – profits, profits and more profits,” Vladimir Cheremis said at the protest rally. “Thanks to this scandal, the whole world can see what Ukrainian capitalism is like.”

When the rally was over, activists staged an unauthorized march along Kreshchatyk and Institutskaya Street to the Cabinet building, where they handed a petition outlining the workers’ demands to government officials. “We worked, but you didn’t pay!” the marchers chanted. Near the Cabinet building they ran into three MPs – Vasily Khara, Alexander Stoyan and Yaroslav Sukhoi, authors and lobbyists of the new proposed Labor Code. To their misfortune, the MPs had left for their lunch break at the wrong time. Sergei Kirichuk, coordinator of the Borotba Association [The Struggle], called on the MPs to withdraw the anti-labor law bill from parliament, and the three men quickly retreated to loud whistling and cries of “Shame!”

The rally in support of guest construction workers was the latest stage in the process of building a new leftist movement in Ukraine. By defending the rights of the most vulnerable segment of Ukrainian laborers – migrant workers – coalition members encourage those who have nothing to lose but their chains to protest.

Translator’s Note. The “guest workers” – or zarobitchani (in Ukrainian) – referred to in these articles are not migrant workers from other countries, but economic migrants from other regions of Ukraine who come to Kyiv, the country’s capital, in search of work. But the term (which literally means “earners”) is applied to all Ukrainian migrant laborers, including those who work abroad. According to some sources, there are 4.5 million such zarobitchani. They work in Russia, the EU countries, and the US, and contribute as much as eight percent of Ukraine’s total GDP through their remittances.


Euro 2012 Construction Worker Blues
May 31 | Svitlana Tuchynska
Money trail leads to black holes

Construction workers are rushing to finish work near Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium, the gleaming modern centerpiece of Ukraine’s preparations for the Euro 2012 tournament and venue for the July 1 championship match.

But behind the impressive visage of the state-funded, $550 million stadium lies a tale of deaths, injuries and unpaid wages for laborers.

At least six people have been killed in stadium construction accidents since 2008, according to the Kyiv city prosecutor, while workers say the number of fatal victims is actually 10. But more common, workers say, is simply bad treatment of them…

Read the rest of the article here.


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