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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Labor Laws Must Assure Timely Pay

Nine of the metro construction workers who went on hunger strike to force payment of eight months back wages have finally succeeded in getting paid, but everything about their story cries foul.

The first and most obvious lesson of the metro workers' experience is that it is outrageous that anyone should have to put themselves in hospital just to get paid what is owed to them. Moreover, it was only the nine workers who saw the strike out to the bitter end who got paid. Those who stopped a few days earlier -- let alone their colleagues who were not striking -- got nothing.

Tonot, the company responsible for paying the workers' wages, has skillfully pushed resentment onto the strikers themselves by saying they had to rob Peter to pay Paul, taking money that would otherwise have been distributed among all the workers just in order to pay off the nine hunger strikers more or less in full.

Yet there is something deeply suspect about Tonot's claim of poverty. Metro construction is a project that is developed from scratch: A budget is set and workers hired to execute it. So either Moscow can afford to build new lines -- in which case it pays the contractors who then have a first obligation of paying the workers -- or it cannot. If the latter is true, then why were these workers hired at all? Why are tunnels being built?

Clearly, Moscow's city government can afford to pay for the metro construction. Otherwise, it would have no business building statues of Peter the Great or huge underground shopping complexes. This leads to only one conclusion, namely that the city, the contractors or both are treating payment of workers as their last, not their first priority.

It is the fact that factory directors, regional governors and the federal government in Moscow all share this attitude that is making non-payment of wages a nationwide epidemic. This sort of disregard for workers' rights has been sharply reduced in the West, but it can still happen anywhere if employers are allowed to get away with it -- that is what trades unions and labor laws were invented for.

The bottom line is that Russia's workers are in a hopelessly weak position. First, there is massive underemployment in the economy, meaning that employers can always find someone else to fill a vacancy. Second, trades unions in Russia are likewise weak. And finally, Soviet holdovers such as the Moscow residence permit and the labor book often mean workers cannot just quit, because they cannot risk losing such vital documents.

Russia's workforce needs radical new legal and constitutional protection, not hunger strikes. Perhaps by legislating such protection, the State Duma could win the hearts of the nation.