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Russia: May Day Demonstrations Highlight Labor Crisis

Representatives of Russia's trade unions gathered today in Moscow for traditional international Labor Day demonstrations. The May Day protests come amid growing complaints against the new Labor Code now being lobbied by the government to replace old Soviet legislation. While all parties agree that the old code is obsolete and must be adapted to suit Russia's new market conditions, trade unions claim that the state and employers are trying to deny unions and employees their basic rights. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports on the issue.

Moscow, 1 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Trade unions claim that nationwide, over 100,000 people joined in traditional May Day labor demonstrations. But despite sunshine and warm temperatures, only a few hundred demonstrators gathered outside the Moscow mayor's office to support the trade unions' call for "unity, solidarity, and workers' human rights." But those who were there said that 10 years after the collapse of the socialist system, defending workers' rights to normal pay, reasonable hours, and a strong union have become critical issues as the Russian government moves to reform its labor and social security legislation.

A key item on both government and labor agendas is the adoption of a new Labor Code to replace its Soviet-era predecessor, adopted in 1971.

While the Soviet code has already withstood several rounds of amendments, all parties agree the legislation is too obsolete to apply to the current Russian labor market. The gaps in adequate labor legislation have given management the upper hand, especially in the private sectors, where employers routinely hire and fire workers at will.

No fewer than six versions of the new Labor Code have been presented to the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. The government's version -- until recently considered the most likely to be adopted -- proposes a "liberalization" of labor laws, to respond with greater flexibility to market fluctuations and rampant unemployment. According to the business daily "Vedomosti," the government's version of the Labor Code has also received the support of Russia's former "oligarchs" through the Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists.

Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok argues that the government-backed code reverses much of the existing Soviet legislation, which he says discourages effective and fair hiring practices. For example, he proposes lifting the Soviet ban on business trips for working women with young children -- a measure originally designed to protect working mothers that he says has actually resulted in employers hiring fewer women.

Other "flexibility" measures in the government-backed code propose widening the condition under which an employee may be fired by doing away with the Soviet-era condition that the labor union must approve the layoff. Another article in the proposed code allows the eight-hour work day to be stretched to 12 hours under certain conditions and with the worker's consent.

Trade unions and their supporters in the Duma have denounced such revisions, saying the changes serve the interests of "capitalists" and do little to protect workers' rights.

Last December, a scheduled vote on the Labor Code was postponed, with Pochinok announcing a special commission would work out a compromise version of the code.

Last week, opponents of the government proposal received unexpected support from Russian President Vladimir Putin. After a meeting with trade unions, Putin said that while Russia needs new labor legislation like it needs "air" to breathe, the country should "uproot its habit of economizing on the cheapest commodity -- the work force."

In remarks reported by the media, Putin warned against allowing employers to "dictate [their] conditions" and promote "merciless exploitation." He added that the unions' opinions should be taken into account in drafting a new Labor Code.

Andrei Isayev is the deputy head of the Duma Labor Committee and the author of a version of the Labor Code widely supported by the unions. Speaking at today's demonstration, Isayev said the government proposal had been successfully blocked:

"Only the solidarity in society today is a real weapon of the working people. It is only thanks to solidarity, to our common actions, that we stopped the attempt to adopt a feudal labor code, with a 12-hour working day that eliminates the possibility of getting a good education. Shame on those who proposed it and hail to the solidarity that blocked this attempt."

But a special mixed commission -- including government, Duma, and trade union representatives -- is still tasked with working out a single compromise version. Many observers believe that views on labor are too disparate to ever fit within a single body of legislation.

The major point of conflict is the role of the labor unions themselves. Trade unions, which under the Soviet system played a prominent, if largely decorative, role, have been actively lobbying their own version of the Labor Code.

Mikhail Shmakov, the head of the Federation of Independent Labor Unions, told demonstrators today that unions are the only way for Russia's workers to adequately defend themselves:

"In defending our Labor Code in the Duma, and in negotiations with the government, we need to safeguard the key issue -- the right of workers to unite, and the rights of unions. Because without these things, arbitrary rule will triumph in factories."

Trade unions have largely failed to meet the challenges of Russia's new capitalism. The unions, in Soviet times, were tailored to organize social events and enforce discipline -- all under, not as a counterbalance to, Communist Party control. Now, poorly equipped to take up the role of "real" labor unions, they have had only limited success in rallying popular support.

Larissa, a kindergarten teacher who works long hours for little pay, says labor unions have made no difference in her life:

"We are working more but get miserable [pay]. We work in the kindergarten 12 hours straight, because no one will come to work for just a few kopecks. No one. So you have to do the work of three or four people. I do the work of eight people and get 2,000 rubles (about $75 a month) for it."

Union critics have said that amendments to the existing Labor Code have already put a crimp on many workers' rights. Last year, a number of the so-called "social contributions" required by companies -- including donations to pension, medical, and vacation funds controlled by the unions -- were abolished. Its replacement, the new "social tax," amounts to millions of dollars and is paid directly to state coffers, bypassing the unions altogether.

Officials like Pochinok have defended the change, saying the new tax will be put to better use if it flows through the state budget. But union representatives have protested the measure, saying it will put an end to union-paid vacations for workers and their children.

However, the media, and to a lesser extent the government, have repeatedly accused union leaders of misusing social funds and Soviet-era property for their own financial gain.

According to the daily "Kommersant," the trade unions' empire includes $6 billion worth of real estate. Soon, the sprawling sanatoriums on Russia's fashionable Black Sea coast may be all that is left of the unions' former prestige.