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Armenian Chemical Workers Demand Unpaid Wages

Chemical workers protest in Vanadzor
Chemical workers protest in Vanadzor
VANADZOR, Armenia -- More than 100 employees of Armenia's two largest chemical enterprises demonstrated to demand payment of their back wages for the past several months, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

The Yerevan-based Nairit chemical giant and the Vanadzor-Khimprom plant located in the northern city of Vanadzor have a significant backlog of unpaid wages despite partly resuming operations this year. Both Russian-investor-controlled companies were hit hard by the global financial crisis, laying off or sending on leave scores of workers.

Some 70 of Nairit's 3,000 employees protested outside the main government building in Yerevan on November 11 during a weekly session of Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian's cabinet. They said they have not been paid since July.

The protesters were allowed to enter the building and speak to Energy and Natural Resources Minister Armen Movsisian.

"We come to work but don't get paid," one angry woman told Movsisian.

"Mr. Movsisian, don't get us wrong, we can't get by," she said. "We just want what we have earned."

"I can understand you," he replied. He pledged to look into the matter and "answer all questions" in the next few days.

The government has a 10 percent stake in the Soviet-built company, which has repeatedly changed owners over the past two decades.

The Nairit protesters also said they and many of their colleagues were again sent on leave late last month. They claimed that the plant's executive director, Armen Movsisian, is forcing them to sign documents saying they stopped working voluntarily.

A similar number of mostly middle-aged chemical workers rallied outside the Vanadzor plant.

"We haven't been paid for seven months," one of them told RFE/RL. "If I got my wages I would be able to take care of my winter expenses," said another man.

Vanadzor-Khimprom's chief executive, Aleksandr Snegirev, came out to talk to the protesters and invite them to his office for a discussion.

"They promised to pay us in the next two days," one worker told RFE/RL after the 20-minute meeting held behind the closed doors.

Vanadzor-Khimprom laid off 600 of its 830 employees in late 2008 after halting production of calcium carbide and other chemicals. Most of them were reportedly rehired this summer as the company, which is Vanadzor's largest employer, gradually resumed operations.

Snegirev said in August that Vanadzor-Khimprom will soon relaunch its carbide production line and is pressing ahead with plans to manufacture large amounts of mineral fertilizers. Movsisian visited the company and approved a rehabilitation plan drawn up by its management last month.

The energy minister, who oversees Armenia's once thriving chemical industry, said on November 11 that the export-oriented sector has yet to emerge from the global recession.

"This sphere is the most difficult one as it doesn't recover easily," Movsisian told RFE/RL. "It's not just Nairit's problem. The same problem exists all over the world."

Official statistics show Armenian chemical output soaring by almost 28 percent year-on-year to 7.1 billion drams ($19.5 million) in the first nine months of this year. Production of synthetic rubber, Nairit's main product, doubled in this period, according to the National Statistical Service.