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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unions and Cabinet Spar on Labor Code

As the country's unions kicked off a week of protests against the government's proposed Labor Code, Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok said Thursday he would be willing to sit down with pro-union legislators and hammer out a compromise.

But even as he extended an olive branch, he lashed out at the unions for spreading what he said was disinformation about the government's proposal.

"Those who are going to these protest actions have not read the government's proposal," Pochinok said.

Labor leaders have objected to measures in the government's proposed code that would diminish the role of unions, make it easier to fire workers and could extend the work week up to 56 hours. Pro-union legislators have offered an alternative proposal, and the State Duma is due to take both versions up for discussion next Thursday.

Pochinok conceded that the deputies' version is an improvement over the current Labor Code, which has changed little since 1971, but he said it did not go far enough. He said he would support the creation of a conciliation commission.

But sounding exasperated, Pochinok said the unions had misrepresented the government version.

On the issue of firing, for example, he said the government's version offered an exhaustive list of reasons a worker could be dismissed, which he said varied little from the current Labor Code.

"Only one thing has been taken away — the requirement of union consent [for a dismissal]," Pochinok said.

Labor leaders argue that excluding the unions from the process could lead to arbitrary firings and vindictive dismissals of union activists.

But Pochinok argued that there have been "an avalanche of cases when small labor organizations are formed with just one goal — so that they can say, 'Comrades, come to our organization and we will never give approval for your dismissal.'"

He said the case of the union at a McDonald's food processing plant in the Moscow region was just such an instance.

"Go and see how they [McDonald's] are oppressing the working class," Pochinok said.

"For all of its existence, there hasn't been one delay in wages at that workplace. … They have a splendid program of benefits. … The working conditions are in line with all norms for lighting, safety, etc. … But they really did make a mistake. They didn't listen to the union that was formed. They are naive people."

The union at the McComplex plant says the company harasses its members and that conditions are not quite as ideal as Pochinok says.

On the issue of maternity leave, Pochinok said the unions had simply gotten their facts wrong.

"They say we are taking away the three-year maternity leave. We are not taking it away. It says three years right here," he said.

Irene Stevenson, Moscow field representative at the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center, conceded that she and others mistakenly had been under the impression that the government wanted to cut maternity leave.

Even so, she said, the government's proposal offers a much harsher blow to women than a cut in maternity leave. Under existing legislation, pregnant women and women with children under three years cannot be fired. The government's proposed code says that a pregnant woman or woman with young children may be fired with due cause.

The lack of protection means that a woman who opts to return to work will be at greater risk of losing her job and jeopardizing her seniority than a woman who opts to take the leave and scrape by on miserly government child-support payments, Stevenson said.

Duma Deputy Sergei Popov of the Yabloko faction told Interfax on Wednesday that passing a Labor Code without first holding a national discussion on the matter "could cause a social explosion."

The Federation of Independent Unions of Russia on Thursday launched a week of protests with demonstrations in many cities, including Samara, Chelyabinsk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

In Moscow, the radical communist group Working Russia protested the government draft near the White House. Federation-sponsored events in the capital were scheduled for next Wednesday and Thursday. The Government's Proposed Labor Code Labor Movement Site