Russia: learning to live without a job


By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — In January, my friend Valya was sacked from her job. A former English teacher, energetic and self-assured, she had quit an office job with a Russian commercial firm in order to take up an offer of better-paid work with a western company. She had been hired on a probationary basis, an arrangement unfamiliar to Russians. On beginning work, she found that the pay was "probationary" as well; the rate promised was to be paid only after some months. But shortly before her probation was to end, she was called in and sacked.

"You don't fit in with the people here", was all the firm's director would say when asked for an explanation. And so Valya had come and sat at my kitchen table, seething at the wrong done to her, wanting me to help her obtain her rights.

"But you don't have any rights", I said. "It's capitalism here now. They can do it to you — it's in the new Labour Code. What you need is another job."

The chances of that were not good. Valya was now a typical member of Russia's registered unemployed — a middle-aged woman with higher education. I showed her where a private job-search agency was advertising. "It won't do any good", she said with a note of disgust. "If they want women at all, they want 20-year-olds with good legs. Look at that — 'Bookkeeper, female, to 30 years, attractive appearance'."

Valya had never struck me as an especially political individual. But here she was having to confront her powerlessness in a society where the ruling system no longer pretended to defend workers. Her predicament, and the shedding of illusions, are now commonplace in Russia as sackings cease to be a rarity, and as unemployment has risen to western European and even Third World levels.

The notion that unemployment here is high by world standards is heresy so far as the Russian government and its apologists are concerned. "Unemployment in Russia in mid-1995 was only 8 per cent", the English-language Moscow Times declared on August 8. "This is truly remarkable, given that output has collapsed 50 per cent since 1989. Employment is adjusting in a humane way, for a widespread shakeout from industry has been avoided."

Russian statistics, however, often need to be taken sceptically, and those on unemployment are among the worst. The Labour Ministry figure normally cited for the number of unemployed is just 2.2 million — a little over 3% of the 70-million-strong work force. That is the number of jobless currently registered with the Federal Employment Service and receiving its tiny benefit payments.

Calculated according to the methodology of the International Labor Organisation, the number unemployed and actively seeking work stands at 5.7 million — the 8% acknowledged by the Moscow Times.

But these Western criteria scarcely reflect the reality. The Moscow Times admitted that in addition to the technically jobless, 4.4% of the labour force last spring were working only part time, while a further 3.9% had been sent on involuntary leave.

Even this picture is not complete. What is the status of the millions of Russians who turn up for work each day, but who have not been paid for as much as five months? Are they volunteer workers? Or gamblers, taking a chance that money may arrive before the enterprise shuts its doors for good? They are hardly employees in the conventional sense.

If all these categories of jobless, semi-employed and unpaid workers are taken into account, the figure for Russian unemployment cited in June by labour market expert Tatyana Maleva of the Institute of Economic Analysis — 18% — becomes quite believable. The myth of a "humane adjustment" to the free market in labour power dissolves. The number of jobless is seen to correspond to what one would expect in a country ravaged by depression.

The fact that millions of workers who are only vaguely employed by particular enterprises remain on their books requires some explanation. Employers tolerate this situation because of an excess wage tax which encourages them to keep a relatively large number of employees on low pay, rather than employing a smaller number of better-paid workers. Employees are reluctant to sever their links because of the tradition according to which many social welfare benefits are provided by enterprises rather than by the state.

However, the excess wage tax is due to be abolished next year, and with few problems now in attracting and holding workers, enterprises are quickly shedding their health clinics, holiday resorts and child-care centres. As time goes on, patterns of employment and joblessness typical of the peripheral capitalist world will come to prevail in Russia as well.

Already, a "hard core" of long-term jobless has appeared. Among the registered unemployed, the proportion out of work for more than a year doubled from 11% in 1992 to 23% in 1994. The age distribution of the unemployed is also becoming more typical. Although discrimination by employers against older women is an undoubted fact, youth unemployment has become a massive problem. According to the Committee of the Russian Federation on Youth Affairs, people between the ages of 16 and 30 now make up a third of the jobless.

For unemployed people in the new Russia, to spend one's days searching for a job may well be an unaffordable luxury. With unemployment benefits sufficient only to buy a small loaf of bread each day, trying to survive without some other income is not an option for many who lose their jobs. The alternatives are various — selling newspapers or lottery tickets on the streets, toiling during the warmer months to grow food in family vegetable plots, busking, begging, prostitution. All too often, the younger and fitter jobless sink into the criminal underworld.

In Russia as in countries of the long-established Third World, a huge marginalised sub-class, with precarious incomes but no real work, is coming into being.

And Valya? She pawned her jewellery and borrowed from relatives. It was six months before she again found work, as companion and personal assistant to the mother of an Indian business entrepreneur.

By that time, ironically, Valya was quite prosperous. Never one to quit before she was beaten, she refused to believe me when I told her she had no chance of winning redress. She shamed the reluctant legal service of the Russian trade unions into helping her bring a court case for improper dismissal, and against all the odds, won a solid sum in damages. But that is another story.