Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Metro Diggers See No Light in Pay Dispute

The distant glow of a string of electric lamps pierces the hushed gloom of the half-finished Krasnodonskaya subway extension far southeast of the city, revealing six figures huddled together on a makeshift platform. Bleary, vacant eyes staring from grubby faces light up as company approaches, crunching toward them down the tunnel, and visitors are motioned to take a seat on a pile of dirty army surplus coats.

As clouds of dust drift lazily above, mixing with the heavy stench of creosote and cement, tunnel-borer Igor Shchipel explains that he and his five companions -- contract workers from various Russian and Ukrainian cities -- have now reached Day 18 of a hunger strike protesting wage delays.

Six others have already been hospitalized with a variety of starvation-induced complaints, but the need to feed wives and children has hardened the remaining group's resolve to continue their action, come what may.

Their goal is to receive at least 70 percent of wages owed since February, their deteriorating condition. But as Shchipel told of bouts of nausea, dizziness, and hallucination increasingly experienced by the group, a taut look of resignation appeared on the face of the group's de facto spokesman.

"I reckon I'll last about 25 days," he guessed.

With only a meager intake of hot, sugared water and glucose ampoules to sustain them, the protesters' numbers are sure to dwindle further before any concessions are extracted from their employer, the Tonot construction enterprise, subcontractor to the state company Mosmetrostroi.

Bickering continues among the members of the organizational chain of the construction operation, from the subdivision of Tonot directly responsible for paying the drilling teams, through Mosmetrostroi up to the city and federal budgets.

But as far as the protest itself is concerned, employers are clearly unimpressed. In a television appearance on MTK's "Moscow Teletype" program Monday, Mosmetrostroi's deputy director Ezar Sandukovsky stated that strikes and hunger strikes do not bother him in the slightest, while officials at Tonot headquarters showed no greater concern.

City officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday."I'm also waiting to receive back pay from Mosmetrostroi," claimed Tonot director Alexander Redko in a telephone conversation Monday. He drew the line, however, at joining the ranks of the hunger-strikers.

"I have no intention of starving," he said. "All they will achieve through this is the ruination of their health."

Redko's claim that he, too, has been hard done by draws a ripple of wry laughter from the workmen as they sit hunched over piles of unlaid rails in the dank, cold tunnel.

"He's lying!" spat Ukrainian Pyotr Shchtitz, who, pallid and withdrawn, has just rejoined the group after spending four days in the hospital for plummeting blood pressure.

Taking a long drag on a gratefully received cigarette, Shchipel recalled some of Redko's attempts at appeasement.

"He did officially declare before us 'Lads, if you don't get the money by Monday I'll lie down and join you,' so sure, if he turns up he can snuggle up with us -- we'll lend him a coat," he grinned.

Neither does Redko's on-the-spot payment of 600,000 rubles per man a week ago cut much ice with the hunger strikers, who have uniformly sent the token handout back to anxious wives.

"We're not saying we need the sort of crazy sums of money that people earn throughout the civilized world, but we do a dangerous job for a pittance," said Shchipel, citing a theoretical monthly wage of 1,400,000 rubles.

"How can you hate your own people so much that you treat them this badly," he mused wearily.