Russian Labor: Workers’ Stories

A Sociological Glimpse at Moscow’s Working Population

he Russian middle class continues to make strides, but the “American Dream” remains unreachable for most Russians due to poor enforcement of the labor code and unscrupulous business practices by Russian capitalists.

In a small store on Nagornaya Street in Moscow’s southeast, Oxana manages the produce counter. She considers herself somewhat of a success story. She moved here from Chelyabinsk in south-central Russia in search of economic opportunity and says she’s found it. She likes her boss; he pays her regularly, allows the counter to close early on holidays, and even occasionally brings her lunch during her 14-hour workday (seven days a week). She has a contract, a sought-after rarity among low-wage, low-education Russian employees that guarantees her 300 RUR ($11) a day. “Eto Normalno,” she says with a bit of pride in her voice.

Both she and her sister, Marina, live on her small wage. Marina had worked as a clerk at the convenience store down the street. She made 600 RUR a day, but worked something called “sutki cherez sutki;” she would work 24 hours straight, go home for 24, then come back for her next shift with no holidays. One day, her boss said that he had to pay his taxes and was short on cash, but would pay wages shortly. But what followed were only more excuses. After working two months with no pay, Marina finally quit. “Eto Normalno,” she says.

Technically, Russian law mandates a minimum wage and a 40-hour workweek, with overtime not to exceed 4 hours a day. All workers are even guaranteed 28 paid vacation days per year, as well as sick leave and generous maternity leave. There are penalties to employers for late payment of salary.

Business Moscow Kiosk

In Moscow, kiosks employ thousands. Like most, this one is unheated and without running water. Its sole employee, a 57-year old woman, works here 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week.

However, for Marina there is no government agency that will help. To avoid taxes, her boss never created worker documentation for her and thus there is no documentation that she ever worked there or that she should receive a salary at all. Furthermore, she says that on her wage she could not afford to register herself in Moscow and is thus an illegal resident. Presenting herself to the authorities would not be in her best interests.

Her sister, who is an official employee, also could not turn to any government agency if she wished to complain about her 98-hour workweek. She is officially a manager by contract, entrusted to hire employees to work shifts. That she works more hours than legally required would be considered her own fault as a manager. Furthermore, since minimum wage in Russia is only 720 rubles ($26) a month, the 300 rubles a day that she is given is technically enough to hire some 12 people to staff the counter.

The minimum wage, incidentally, remains low despite the fact that the government itself has calculated the official subsistance level to be more than three times that amount, at 5512 rubles ($187) a month, and most international agencies consider the official estimate low. But government wages are calculated as multiples of the minimum wage, so any increase causes government expenses to go up exponentially. Until Russia finds a new system, it is unlikely that minimum wage will rise significantly.

Business in Russia. McDonalds HR Advertising.

McDonald’s boasts pay of about $350 per month for full-time employees in Moscow.

Fortunately, almost no one in Russia pays minimum wage. The average wage of the Russian worker rose to 7126 rubles ($255) per month this year. In Moscow it is about twice that. McDonald’s boasts on advertisements throughout the capital a starting salary of 8000 rubles with guaranteed time off to study. But not all employees work for an American company (although most want to, both Marina and Oxana have asked about working in my office) and there are many exceptions to “almost.” Some rural farm workers make as little as $13 a month and recently authorities shut down a logging camp that was using slave labor in the Russian Far East.

For the educated, the situation is better. Ilnar is an assistant accountant in Moscow. His name and face are ethnic (Tatar), which can count as two strikes in the still openly racist Russian job market. He moved to the capital from his native Kazan after serving his mandatory two years military service and found a job as a courier for a business consulting/audit firm. But he proved himself an excellent and personable worker, enrolled himself in accounting courses and, with the handful of English the army taught him, secured a promotion. He earns a good salary, one that is never late, and is enough to pay for tuition, a couple new suits, and a “comfortable” lifestyle.

However, education is not always a sure-fire path to stable employment. Artyom works as a computer programmer; he is Russian and his last name (which has been withheld) is connected with ancient nobility and contemporary artists. He earns enough to take English lessons twice a week and dreams of moving to Britain. But he experiences “delays with salary” nearly every other month. When asked why he stays on with his company, he simply says that there are few better in Moscow that he could work for. A job that allows time and salary for English lessons is a rare one, he says. Besides, like most Russians, he has little savings and cannot afford to quit.

There has been a marked increase in the number of employees willing to file suits against their employers to win their salaries and legal rights and they usually win, but only after lengthy appeals. However, there is often retaliation by employers after the suits, which can include demotion, loss of rights (such as credit at the company store), forced transfer (often to a more dangerous work environment) and general harassment. The American Embassy in Russia has documented cases of this.

Unfortunately, worker rights are not much of an issue in Russia. Currently, the workforce (and population in general) believes that its ability to affect change in the political and/or economic system is minimal. But the issue is a pressing one, as the stabilization of the Russian economy and democracy are now international goals. This series of articles will examine issues of importance to the labor force of Russia, a key element to every democracy and market economy.

About the Author

Josh Wilson

Josh has lived in Moscow since 2003, when he first arrived to study Russian with SRAS. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. At SRAS, Josh assists in program development and leads our Home and Abroad Programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

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