Budgetary Workers Organize Protest Actions - 26 February, 2003

Russian minister of labor and social development is spreading not exact information when he says that there are no arrears of wages to workers financed from the state budget. But in fact, budget depending workers were not paid wages since summer, and they have to organize protest actions again and again. How long this situation may last?

An All-Russian protest action demanding to raise the living standard of people working in educational, medical and cultural spheres (workers financed from the state budget) has started today. In accordance with the information reported by different trade union organizations, demonstrations, protest actions and pickets will be held in almost 70 regions of Russia within  February 26-28. Workers financed from the budget demand that their wages must be increased 1.5-2 times, but not by one third as the government plans; it is also demanded that student scholarships must be increased up to 500 rubles. These increases are insignificant against the background of the present-day inflation rate in Russia. And even if the government had agreed to carry out the demands, the sums would have been curtailed as a result of inflation by next summer already.

As trade unions inform, average wages of teachers, doctors and employees of cultural institutions make up 3.000 rubles (less than 100 dollars) on average in the country. What is more, even these small sums are paid not regularly. Total arrears of wages to workers financed from the state budget makes up 2.5 billion rubles in accordance with official data.

Moscow authorities prohibited workers to organize any manifestations in the city, which by the way was never done before. The explanation to this measure is evident: Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov is going to run for the post for the third period, and manifestations in the Moscow streets would have seriously marred his image of Russia’s best mayor.

However, budget related workers are indignant not only at arrears of wages, they are awfully scared with reforming of the system of payment designed by the RF Labor Ministry. Although the ministry quotes figures to assure people that a new system of wages payment to budget related workers is advantageous, workers and trade union leaders understand perfectly well that “shifting of the responsibility for payments to budgetary workers onto the RF subjects and local authorities”, as it is to be done in the network of the new system, may result in a catastrophe. And it is quite understandable why workers are so much scared with these innovations. Indeed, at the time when wages to workers depending upon the federal budget are delayed for 2-3 months, workers depending upon regional budgets are not paid wages for a year or even more. It is often a problem for regional authorities to pay for electricity supply, gas and other public utility bills. Unfortunately, the problem of wages to teachers, doctors and librarians is paid attention to only on the eve of forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Governmental officials often explain the situation with the fact that regional authorities misspend money meant for wages to budgetary workers. At that, the government planned for redistribution of revenues between the center and the regions at the ratio of 68% to 32% in its favor for this year. This fact certainly makes governors of Russian regions very much unhappy.

As the Federation of Independent Trade Unions informs, the total arrears of wages to budgetary workers made up 30.6 billion rubles within 2002. And the situation became even worse in January 2003 and the arrears went up by 2.647 billion rubles more. Thus, the total arrears of wages currently make up over 33.222 billion rubles.

In accordance with the official information of the Russian Statistics Committee, arrears of wages caused by lack of financing from the federal budget increased by 9.7% over January and made up 567 million rubles as of February 1. Arrears of wages caused by lack of financing from budgets of Russian Federation subjects and from regional budgets increased by 5.4% in January and made up 3.086 billion rubles.

So, the share of the debt of the federal budget is minimal in this situation. However, redistribution of revenues in the center’s favor is the reason why debts of local budgets to workers increased so much. It is the government that is to be blamed for this situation as it failed to forecast such results. But the government prefers to cynically shut the eyes to the problem.

What is going on in fact? The government holds back money meant for payment of wages to budgetary workers in order to regulate the inflation rate in the country. What is more, the government uses the money to cover some of their financial faults. When this dirty work is done, the government pays wages to budget related workers with big delays. Regional authorities also do it with budgetary money, private employers do the same with money meant for wages of their workers. We may say that this scheme is in the basis of the economic system working in Russia.

Russian Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok informed the government about records fixed by the ministry: as he stated, strike activity in the country somehow reduced 3.6 times within the previous year. It is strange that such is the situation against the background of increasing arrears of wages and consequently worseningliving standard of the population. Why are these people don’t protest against such living conditions? The poor in Europe and Latin America, on the contrary, strongly protest when the government attempts to curtail their hardship allowances by 10-20 dollars. It is difficult to say what consequences may today’s protest action bring.

In 1998, before the default, the government ignored mass protests of workers. But when economists estimated the economic damage caused by the strikes, it turned out that this damage would have been quite enough for a serious crisis in the country. And now, just few days before a war in Iraq, it may happen that even one well-planned wave of strikes will be enough for serious economic problems to begin in the country. But who will profit from it?

Kira Poznakhirko

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Author`s name Michael Simpson