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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Proposed Code Has Labor Up In Arms

A long-simmering debate over the country's outdated Labor Code is coming to a head as the government prepares to push its version through the State Duma this month, much to the chagrin of the labor movement.

Alarmed at the government's plan, which diminishes the power of unions, introduces a potential 56-hour work week and halves the allowed maternity leave, pro-union deputies introduced their own alternative in May. Cabinet officials say the deputies' version is too hard on management and will hinder economic development.

The Duma is scheduled to consider both versions — in addition to a radical Communist version and an incomplete one, neither of which is considered to have a chance at passing — on Dec. 21. The Federation of Independent Unions of Russia has planned demonstrations for Dec. 14 through Dec. 19 to drum up support for the deputies' version.

The current Labor Code has changed little since 1971, although dozens of additional laws regulating labor relations have been passed outside the code. Employers complain that many of the limitations it contains do not make sense in a market economy.

"The code does not reflect, even approximately, the dynamic and changing relationships that have taken shape between the worker and the employer," said Alexei Sklyar, personnel manager at Business Consulting Group.

Labor activists agree that the current Labor Code, which was drawn up when the state was the only employer, no longer meets society's needs.

"The biggest problem is the lack of mechanisms to bring people to accountability," said Irene Stevenson, Moscow field representative of the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center. "There are a lot of rights, guarantees, but a lack of mechanisms."

The classic example is the right to get paid twice a month for one's work. For much of the 1990s, millions of workers saw their wages delayed or substituted by goods that they could then sell or barter away to survive. But when workers tried to sue, their efforts came to nothing.

The deputies' version of the Labor Code lays the responsibility for on-time payment explicitly on the employer's shoulders and gives workers the right to take action even before a lawsuit is settled — by stopping work.

For the most part, however, the deputies' version differs little from the current code. All of the guarantees for workers laid out in the latter are included, and some are expanded on.

The government version, on the other hand, contains radical changes.

Among the most controversial are:

oTemporary contracts. The government version would pave the way for wider use of temporary work contracts, which under the current Labor Code can only be used in certain cases. It would also allow employers to renew those temporary contracts indefinitely. Today, if a temporary contract is renewed, it automatically becomes a permanent contract.

Union activists fear that the government's innovation will simply become an easy way for companies to fire workers — without providing compensation or justification.

But Sklyar of Business Consulting Group contends that the current limitation on temporary contracts creates problems for companies.

Elsewhere in the world, top-level managers are hired for several years at a time, and those contracts are only renewed after their performance is evaluated.

But in Russia, if a company is not happy with an employee, "you have to convince them to write a letter of resignation of their own initiative," he said.

However, Sklyar conceded that it might be wise to limit this practice to rank-and-file workers.

oDiminished role of unions. The current code lists eight acceptable reasons to fire an employer. Union approval is required for three of them — including mass layoffs, incompetence and inability to work for more than four months (e.g. because of illness). The government's version does not require union approval for any firing.

The government version would also deprive unions of the right to be provided office space and telephones and give management the right to choose which unions to negotiate with and which to ignore. Unions could be fined for not providing management with information about workers.

"The trade union becomes the rat instead of a representative of the employees," Stevenson said.

o"With the worker's consent." The government version would allow exceptions to accepted norms, such as the eight-hour day, if the worker agrees to it. A person's hours could be increased in this way up to 12 hours a day and 56 hours a week.

Union activists say the government is unfairly assuming that the worker and the employer are equal partners in a contract. But workers are in fact dependent on their bosses and could easily be coerced into giving formal consent, they say.

oLess maternity leave. According to today's code, women get five months of paid maternity leave, but can stay home without losing their jobs for three years. The government wants to cut that down to 1 1/2 years. Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok has argued that the three years of leave prompts employers to discriminate against women in hiring.

Speaking at a public hearing at the Duma in November, Deputy Andrei Isayev, one of the sponsors of the alternative version, said this would cause major difficulties since most day-care centers in Russia only accept children who are at least 2 1/2.

"Hundreds of thousands of people will have to choose between their family and their career," he said.

The current labor laws are obeyed only a small part of the time. Rostrudinspektsia, the state labor inspectorate, registers 2 million violations of the code a year. Former Duma Deputy Anatoly Golov, who introduced his own, incomplete code in 1999, said at last month's hearing that the real number of violations was closer to 300 million.

Golov estimated that half of all workers are completely off the books and therefore have even more difficulty using the Labor Code to defend their rights.

Adherents of the government version say the current Labor Code is not being followed because it is utopian and needs updating.

Union activists do not accept that logic.

"People are killing each other. Does that mean we should legalize it?" Stevenson said.