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Russian metallurgists turn to Medvedev to plead for protection against oligarchs

Russian metallurgists turn to Medvedev to plead for protection against oligarchs

03.05.2011 — Analysis

Owners of Russian mining and metallurgical enterprises are willing to introduce a new occupational safety standard, lobbying it in authority offices. If the standard is approved, thousands of the Russian workers operating in noise, dust and gas polluted workshops and mines are going to lose their allowances for harmful working conditions as well as additional paid vacation. Trade union representatives say that the flagrant violation of miners' and metallurgists' rights is based on the obvious unwillingness of factory and mine owners to be held financially liable for neglectful attitude to the health of their employees. As the "RusBusinessNews" columnist has found it out, the number of jobs aggravated by harmful labor conditions is growing at large enterprises from year to year.

The Sverdlovsk Regional Committee of the Russian Mining and Metallurgy Trade Union has forwarded to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev a petition signed by many thousands of employees working in the industry. Miners and metallurgists ask the head of the state to turn down the new classification of labor conditions, which is peddled by oligarchs. The wage and salary workers are sure that the regulations and standards that are being lobbied through lack any incentive that would motivate owners to upgrade obsolete production facilities.

The confrontation between employers and trade unions was instigated by the Russian government, which in 2008 adopted Ordinance No. 870 that addressed the issue of benefits to be paid to employees working in hazardous environment. If eligible, the employee must be given money compensation (minimum 4% of the salary), additional paid vacation of minimum 7 days a year and reduced workweek. The preparation of the documents specifying the provision of benefits was entrusted to the RF Ministry of Public Health and Social Development. The preparation of regulatory documents stipulating the required assessment of workplaces turned into a stumbling stone.

At present, harmful exposure allowances are paid in accordance with the classification approved in 1974. Thirty seven years ago the labor conditions were subdivided into several categories: optimum, admissible and harmful. The representatives of the occupations included in the third list were qualified for benefits. The Sverdlovsk Regional Committee of the Russian Mining and Metallurgy Trade Union came to the conclusion that the industry average amounts to 64% of the employees who work in unfavorable health conditions or in harmful environment. As long as the previous rules were in place, employers accepted the standard, as compensations were significantly lower than those provided for by Ordinance No. 870. The government's new initiative that spurred manufacturers to get rid of working places characterized by harmful labor conditions looked very displeasing: they were not planning for sizeable expenditure on labor safety and compensation payments.

Mine and factory owners did not like the government's idea of launching reforms in the system of insurance against accidents and occupational diseases. Today, deductions to the Russian Social Insurance Fund are based on the uniform rates for industries. The restructuring of the regulatory framework will involve application of specific rates that will be defined on the risk-assessed basis. Consequently, the enterprises with obsolete equipment, poor conditions of labor and high accidental rates will have to pay maximum amounts. Differential rates are intended to motivate the employer to invest funds in improving of labor conditions and decreasing of occupational hazards. The risk evaluation system will be based on the results of workplace assessment. It is this assessment that caught attention of oligarchs who decided to take a firm hold of it to reduce their payments to the Social Insurance Fund.

According to Tatyana Bogodyazh, Deputy Head of the Labor Safety Department at the Sverdlovsk Regional Committee of the Mining and Metallurgy Trade Union, employers intend to downsize the personnel working in harmful conditions; however, the downsizing will be reached through review of criteria set for health hazards. They have started preparing a new labor safety standard, which benchmarks labor conditions with health regulations. Astute employers revamped the classification; as a result the third category accounting for 40-50% of jobs in the mining and metallurgical industry stopped being classified as harmful. The reclassification was based on several amendments: the draft was complemented with a reservation specifying that the employee wearing a breathing mask while working in the dust-polluted workshop is deemed as a person working in normal labor conditions.

In the meantime, working conditions at Sverdlovsk factories and other production facilities are steadily deteriorating. Fedor Kravtsov, Head of the State Labor Inspection of the Sverdlovsk Region, is concerned about the following facts: in 2010, more people died at their working places because of the systemic disease that because of occupational injuries (125 and 97 respectively). He thinks that the mortality causes should be looked for in low-quality preventive medical services and poor labor conditions.

Government inspectors try to motivate manufacturers, promising to release them from scheduled inspections, provided that the requirements of the labor law are met. Some enterprises of the Sverdlovsk Region have already received the so-called "confidence certificates". However, metallurgical smelters have not entered this list. F. Kravtsov suggests that their owners are not ready to finance labor safety programs and reduce accidental rates, which is compulsory for being awarded such certificates.

Tatyana Bogodyazh asserts that mining and metallurgical oligarchs are not only reluctant about investment in labor safety, but also tend to pay less and less attention to labor conditions at their enterprises. For example, at the Nizhny Tagil Iron and Steel Works OJSC (Evraz Group) 53% employees worked in the hazardous production shops in 2009, whereas in 2010 the number of the jobs that were deemed as hazardous in health terms increased to 58% at the same factory. Almost half of the personnel work under conditions of excessive dust pollution, 12% work in the hazardous gas polluted environment. The major shareholder of Evraz Group, Roman Abramovich, who cares so much about the health of Chelsea football players, is embarrassed neither with these numbers, nor with the situation when gases in the workshops can cause tragedies. For example, in 2008 in one of the departments of the coke-and-by-product facilities of the Nizhny Tagil Iron and Steel Works, there was an explosion that caused death of three people. Experts said that the explosion was caused by ammonia vapor and coke gas mixture that was "lit up" by the workers who turned on a welding unit.

Instead of improving health conditions of production facilities, Russian oligarchs use their best efforts to revamp regulations that push them toward modernization of production. It should be noted that in this confrontation between the labor and the capital, top managers of metallurgical factories took the side of employees, as it will be they who tomorrow will have to explain to thousands of workers how it was possible that with the stroke of a pen they were deprived of part of their earnings and paid vacation, while dust and gas concentration levels remain unchanged.

Tatyana Bogodyazh says that the RF Ministry of Public Health and Social Development tends to support oligarchs; therefore, the Mining and Metallurgy Trade Union made a decision to forward the petition to President Dmitry Medvedev. The petition was signed by the overwhelming majority of the employees working at the Nizhny Tagil Iron and Steel Works OJSC: twelve thousand out of fifteen thousand.

Vladimir Terletsky

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