TOLYATTI, Russia -- The assembly lines at the sprawling AvtoVAZ car plant in the Volga River city of Tolyatti have roared back to work after three idle weeks, but the plant's 37,000 workers are still discussing their annual three weeks of forced vacation.
From July 24 until August 13, the giant factory locked its doors and sent its workers home for one of several compulsory-vacation periods in an effort to save money.
"I've worked at the plant for 17 years as an electrician," Grigory Basisty told RFE/RL. "Under the law, the minimum vacation is 28 days, but I get 42 because my work is considered arduous. However, no one asks me if I want my vacation broken up into several bits. Like everyone at the plant, the bosses just tell us when to go: 21 days of vacation in the summer, four days over the winter, three days during the May holidays, and another week of irregular forced vacation, which, of course, I don't need."
"The way things are these days, the workers have no rights in relations with the owners. It is just laughable," he said.
Workers are paid based on their average salary for the preceding 12 months. Basisty received 21,000 rubles ($350) for his 21 days of vacation.
"I spent the whole time at my parents' dacha," he said. Two years ago, his wife -- who also works at the plant -- received a bonus and the family decided to drive with a friend to the resort of Dombai in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region.
"The weeklong trip...for three people cost 40,000 rubles," he said, noting that they watched expenses the whole time. "I took a loan from the bank to make up the shortfall, and I spent the next half a year paying it off."
The massive AvtoVAZ plant, which produces Lada brand cars, was created in the late 1960s and has passed through some hard times since the Soviet Union collapsed. The city of Tolyatti, which today has a population of about 720,000, was purpose-built to host the factory. The plant is partly owned by the Franco-Japanese Renault-Nissan Alliance and produces about 900,000 vehicles of all types each year, including more than 300,000 Ladas. As recently as 2004 it employed nearly 120,000 people.
"The majority of AvtoVAZ workers take their families to go camping somewhere in the south," Basisty explained. "A few can afford vacation packages. Many of them spend their vacations in the villages or at the dacha. Garden plots are a major source of support for AvtoVAZ workers. Like my family, many of them combine their summer vacations with work at their dachas, scrimping on groceries. They live on homegrown potatoes and cucumbers and are putting up food for the winter."
One factory worker -- who asked to be identified only by the first name Lyudmila for fear of reprisal and whose husband also works at the factory -- told RFE/RL that the forced summer vacation is always a problem for her family.
"In May, I began looking for summer work, knowing roughly that the enforced vacation would come at the end of July or the beginning of August. I was able to get a job as a street sweeper for 10,000 rubles a month," Lyudmila said. "I consider that quite good."
"My husband spent his vacation at home, fixing some things," she continued. "I was given 17,000 rubles for vacation pay and my husband got 20,000. As soon as we got the money, we headed to the store and stocked up on potatoes, macaroni, canned meat. We use one can of meat for a whole meal -- half of it in the soup and half with some macaroni for the main course."
In the evenings, Lyudmila says, she and her husband would collect cardboard at local shops and sell it to recyclers for 8 rubles per kilogram. When they find 10-15 kilograms, they can buy a kilogram of apricots for their two children.
"The factory trade union long ago stopped providing subsidized vacations at children's camps," she explained. "So my children spend their summer vacation in our dusty Tolyatti courtyards."
Machinist Albert Piroyev tries to look on the bright side when he discusses the forced vacations.
"I think there is a core of sense to the idea," he conceded, "because at most enterprises like this one there are a lot of workers with federal benefits. They would choose to take vacations when it was convenient for them -- in the summer -- and other workers would have practically no chance to get time off during the summer months."
On the other hand, he argues, the inability to take one long annual vacation makes it impossible for workers to rest completely and is bad for their health.
Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL Tatar-Bashkir Service reporter Sergei Barkov