Employees Say Plant Is Forcing Resignations

MTTwo plant employees walking along a street in Magnitogorsk, under MMK company billboards proclaiming that the wealth of the plant is in its people.
Staff Writers

When the Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works management decided to let Dmitry go, the 24-year-old said they didn't bother to warn him or even give him an official reason.

"I was simply told that I could either resign voluntarily, or they would find a reason, like some disciplinary violation, to fire me," said Dmitry, who declined to give his surname, for fear of reprisals.

Other employees of the Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works, or MMK, say they were also forced to tender their resignations and that dozens of other workers have met the same fate.

And cases like these may be on the rise, labor specialists said, as companies look to save money while reducing staffing levels to deal with the economic downturn.

MMK electrician Alexei Puchkov, 62, said his boss told him he would only receive a severance package if he signed and submitted his resignation papers before Dec. 15, so he complied.

"I am still eager to work, but they made me do it," he said.

By law, an employee must be warned in writing that they are to be laid off at least two months beforehand, and must be offered every possible alternative job vacancy at their workplace.

If an employee is dismissed, the employer must provide a severance package of two-months' pay, unless the employee finds a new position.

Puchkov said he had only received an oral warning that he was being let go.

"First they said they would fire me by the end of the year, then they said by February, and then came to me with my resignation papers in December," Puchkov said, adding that he knew of at least eight other people in his department who had been given the same option.

"Making the employees tender their resignations saves employers time and money, as they don't have to wait for two months after the warning," said the Rusconsult labor law consultant Marina Kapitanova.

If an employee signs documents saying he or she is resigning voluntarily, the worker is not entitled to such compensation, said Yevgeny Gontmakher, director of the Center for Social Policy at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Gontmakher said it was difficult to determine how many workers are being forced to resign and how many are, as their documents maintain, doing so voluntarily.

Some MMK employees, meanwhile, said they refused to bend under pressure.

"I refused to sign the resignation papers," said Ksenia, 27, who worked as a logistics coordinator at MMK and also did not agree to give her surname. "My boss told me they would find workplace violations, but I wasn't afraid of that. It was hard to find anything wrong with my work."

She said she was also told that older colleagues, who would find it more difficult to find new jobs, would be fired if she didn't go.

"They began to play on my compassion after nothing else worked," she said. After further negotiations, she signed an agreement guaranteeing her getting two months severance pay.

Ksenia said others in her department were also pressured to take unpaid holidays.

Gontmakher said that preventing such Labor Code violations was the responsibility of trade unions, and not the government.

"The trade unions are handling the situation badly," he said. "People have no choice but to sign these resignation papers."

MMK did not respond to e-mails or telephone calls for comment for this story on Monday.

Yury Garanov, the head of the Metals and Mining Trade Union for the Chelyabinsk region, where Magnitogorsk is located, said he hadn't heard of any violations at MMK.

"We are monitoring the situation," he said, adding that 2,200 workers had been given warnings that they would be laid off in January.

"If we count all the dismissals and resignations, the Chelyabinsk region's metals industry may lose up to 10,000 workers by the end of the year," Garanov said. He said that MMK employs 60,000 people in the region.

Rusconsult's Kapitanova said that workers could fight back, but it is difficult.

"An employee can potentially sue a former employer for pressuring him to resign, but its usually quite hard to prove," Kapitanova said.

In the event that a company is found guilty of violating these stipulations in the Labor Code, it faces fines and closer scrutiny from labor regulators in the future.

Yevgeny Reizman, a labor and immigration lawyer for Baker & McKenzie, said that the number of labor lawsuits has risen in recent months, as employees who had been laid off were unable to find new work.

"There are more and more labor cases in Moscow's courts, because very often these employees have no other way out," Reizman said. "In court they may hope for reinstatement, or at least to receive some financial compensation."

Kapitanova, who said that her work mostly involves consultation with employers, rather than employees, said companies are now using every available legal pretext to cut stuff.

"If a person is one minute late, he gets a warning," Kapitanova said. "In the event that he is late a second time, the company can then fire him."

Reizman said stories he had heard about unfair labor practices most commonly came from either the financial sector or from heavy machinery companies.

He also said that trade unions were being set up in some companies, as employees watched as more and more of their co-workers were let go.

"I have heard of a number of cases where other employees heard about these practices and heard that this could happen to them, and immediately created trade unions," Reizman. "In such situations, forming trade unions at their companies allow them to resist the employers' plans more effectively."