Labor Code Shakes Soviet Ways

Many of the privileges enjoyed by Russian employees in Soviet times and still in force today might soon be ended if the State Duma passes a new labor code that has aroused the ire of labor unions.

The new draft labor code, replacing an outdated 1992 version, is due to have its second reading in the Duma in July after the parliament's summer break.

The new code includes a host of innovations. For example, formal employment contracts are made compulsory, partially replacing the Soviet system of an "employment booklet" that each worker carries around all their lives; these employment contracts can be suspended or modified during periods when the employer is in financial trouble. New grounds have been added for dismissal; the concept of a right to work has disappeared and the rights of labor unions in deciding conditions of employment, leave, industrial safety and compensation are also seriously reduced.

Not surprisingly, the new code was engulfed in controversy as soon as it was passed at first reading last November. Amendments proposed by the Duma's labor and social welfare committee and also by the Labor Ministry were seen as attacks on workers' rights by unions, women's organizations and veterans groups on the other side of the fence.

Natalya Chekorina, an adviser to the Labor Committee, said, "They are really tearing it to shreds. They are screaming that we are burying the workers."

Opponents of the new code appeal to article 55 of the constitution which forbids any laws which reduce the rights and freedoms of citizens. But those in favor of the new code are convinced that in today's conditions, workers should get a decent wage rather than the myriad of legally guaranteed special conditions and entitlements that existed in Soviet times.

The new labor code, if passed, will be more in line with international conventions. For instance, under article 158 of the International Labor Organization, a worker's severance pay on leaving his job should be in proportion to how long he has worked at the firm. The new code complies with this rule, setting severance pay at a quarter of an average monthly wage multiplied by the number of years worked at the firm.

But the new labor code is in many respects a "transitional" document. It still refers to the "employment booklet," the state's record of work history which all Soviet workers were forced to present to each new workplace. This was regarded as an element of the old system where the state and not employer and employee determined work conditions. But it has proved impossible to get rid of "employment booklets" completely because they are the only record for calculating retirement pensions which are still based on total years each individual has spent in the workforce.

Controversy surrounds not only which entitlements and privileges will be axed under the new code but also about which conditions will be considered privileges. For instance, is it a privilege that under the old labor code, women cannot work at night? Some said night work was a threat to family life. Others said banning it was sexual discrimination.

In fact, this is one of the few issues on which relative agreement has been reached despite the initial controversy. The same cannot be said for the status of various kinds of leave and vacation which are often added on to the maximum 28 days of annual leave.

"Labor unions want to have a basic annual vacation for 24 days plus various additional forms of leave. It is impossible to convince them that this could destroy a lot of companies," said one adviser to the Labor Committee.

It was also very difficult to dismiss workers under the old labor code. But Chapter III article 33 of the new code adds two new justifications for dismissing employees: either "disclosing a commercial secret" or in the case of senior management, "a change of proprietor."

Dispute has also surrounded Article 34, which sets out which employees will get preference in retaining their job when an employer announces lay-offs. According to Chekorina, drafting this aspect of the code has been complicated by labor unions, women's groups and veterans associations which all have their point of view

Labor unions oppose the new code partly because it gives them a much smaller role in work disputes. They have considerable influence in the left wing of the Duma which commands a majority.

On the other hand, the draft code has already passed a first reading and if the right concessions are made to lobbyists it could pass its second reading too.