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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Labor Code Gets Rowdy Welcome

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The State Duma on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a new compromise Labor Code that has the support of the Kremlin and the main trade unions. The Communists, though, remain opposed.

The real show Thursday was outside the Duma, where a few thousand demonstrators gathered in the morning. From the dramatic TV footage it appeared to be an impressive protest against the Labor Code. But on closer look, it was in essence a collection of people impoverished by the changes of the last decade who had come to express their grievances. There also were people chanting support for the new code: members of the youth organization Moving Together, who on occasion come out to back Kremlin initiatives, and representatives of trade unions.

Although the street in front of the Duma was packed with police, tussles broke out, and at least three people were detained. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an outspoken Duma deputy, was attacked by a mob as he entered the building, and his security struck back. One woman who had swung her big black purse at him was knocked flat. Elsewhere, eggs went flying, with some of them hitting the pro-Kremlin youth. Miners sat banging their helmets against the pavement. Other demonstrators, though, just stood calmly listening to speakers or chatting. They held red flags or banners against the new code or against reforms in general.

Thursday was the first hearing of the new Labor Code, long needed to replace Soviet-era legislation that does not recognize private employment. The result is that some 80 percent of the work force operates outside a legal framework.

Seven proposed codes were drawn up and four were presented for a vote Thursday. The one that passed, 288 to 133, was the one called the compromise version. It was the result of a special working group comprising representatives of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, organizations of employers, government officials and Duma deputies. Authors of all seven drafts were invited to participate.

The Kremlin had hoped to get a new Labor Code passed last year, but its initial draft code so angered the trade unions and pro-labor deputies that it backed down and formed the working group The resulting compromise was approved by all but some small trade unions.

Even the liberal Yabloko faction led by Grigory Yavlinsky, which is cautious about supporting Kremlin initiatives, gave the proposed code a mark of approval in a statement distributed to journalists in the Duma.

Yabloko especially liked three provisions of the new code: Minimum monthly wages must be not lower than subsistence level, now considered 1,400 rubles ($48) a month; the employer must pay workers two-thirds of their wages if they remain idle through some fault of the employer; and the employer must pay penalties for delays in payment of wages.

The proposed code also leaves the 40-hour work week, specifying that employees must agree in writing to work overtime and must be paid extra: 50 percent more for the first two hours and double thereafter. And the total number of overtime hours is limited to 120 a year.

Some lawmakers said one shortcoming of the draft is that it is unclear about the form in which wages must be paid. It allows for payment in goods, with the exception of drugs, alcohol and weapons, but does not specify what share of wages can be paid in something other than cash.

The draft code first proposed by the Kremlin had been criticized as too business-friendly. The compromise code still gives private employers the formal right to hire and fire workers, but discourages short-term employment.

After the code was passed, Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok said "several thousand amendments" are expected before it comes up for a second reading in the fall.

One of the biggest problems, he said, is that more than 2 trillion rubles ($69 million) would be needed to raise all wages to the subsistence level of 1,400 rubles.

Few of the people who gathered outside on Ulitsa Okhotny Ryad knew any of the specifics of the proposed code.

"I came here because these new laws are very bad for the people," said Viktor Borovkov, 70, a retired plumber. No, I didn't read the draft of the code. How many drafts did you say there are? Seven? No, we are not Communists. Where did we get the red flags? Someone gave them to us here.

"I used to live well on my 120 rubles a month. Now I can't fix my teeth on the 1,500 rubles of my pension. I can't get any other treatment. We are not living, just trying to survive," Borovkov said.

Most of the members of Moving Together also had no idea what they had come to the Duma to support. Only one of the people organizing their chanting said it was the "compromise" version.

Natalya Grachyova, the head of a trade union at a McDonald's processing plant in Novoperedelkino, said the approved code sounded "not bad."

But, she said, "I can't believe that employers will pay those fines for every day they don't pay wages to their workers. Who will control these payments? And the staff — with our level of unemployment, would they run to the court to make them pay if they delay wages for a few weeks or even months?"