The Soviet-era days, when the system provided reasonably paid employment and employees' rights were protected by law, are gone forever.
Due to the destabilizing economic changes which continue to hit the country hard, many private entrepreneurs and company directors are looking for people they can either hire cheaply or dismiss without compensation. Unlawful dismissal of workers has become common in recent years, with very few seeking redress at court.
Lidya Gretchinikova, employed at Ekonomika i Zhizni until she was sacked in November 1999 without warning, said that filing legal complaints is futile.
Gretchinikova said the main trouble at work was caused by a rivalry between her and another secretary in the department. This resulted in an unstable relationship with her general director. She explained that he had noticed the tense atmosphere and resolved to dismiss her from the job.
Gretchinikova said that, in May 1996, when she was hired, she had had all the contract documents signed that are necessary for filing charges to claim compensation for unfair dismissal. However, she decided not to employ the judicial system, citing Russia's cumbersome legal system as the main reason.
Yelena Rukya of Volsk, a town in the Far East, says she was working in Moscow for a small Turkish tourist company until the 1998 crisis. She said the company was not making enough profit at that point to maintain all the employees on the payroll.
Rukya said her employer's strategy was to avoid paying accumulated arrears and that the company was, in effect, using free labor. She said she could not seek redress in courts for lack of a Moscow registration permit, which is necessary for taking legal action.
She and many others said that employers justify unlawful dismissals using reasons which, although they may be illegitimate, are often convincing enough on the surface to prevent victims from taking judicial action.
Aslan Gadzhi fled his native Tajikistan for Moscow because of the 1992 civil war and founded a construction firm.
His company has still not recovered fully from the August 1998 economic crisis. He said economic instability and high taxes are keeping their profits low and that it is necessary for him to adopt strategies to raise revenue, one of which is the use of cheap labor.
"Sometimes I ask my staff to go on unpaid leave for unspecified periods of time¾Surprisingly, they don’t complain much." Gagzhi said that he thinks that things will continue along the same lines in the future.
Only a small minority of employees appeal to the courts when they feel that their rights have been abused.
According to last year’s annual report by Human Rights Watch, only 5% of employees who said that their rights had been violated in 1999 appealed to trade unions for help and even fewer — just 2% — took legal action.
Yevgenia Druzhin is one worker who did choose to defend her rights. A forklift operator at the McDonald Complex — whose trade unions are among the strongest — and a passionate member of a trade union, she related having taken management to court after being dismissed for breaking equipment. A Moscow court ruled that the equipment broken was not as expensive as alleged by management and she was compensated and reinstated thereafter.
Analysts said that the nature of current Russian legislation has encouraged companies to hire people cheaply and then fire them in order to avoid payment for long-term services.
Many legal experts are doubtful that the new labor code under discussion by the State Duma will improve employees' rights — for example, it would increase the working day to 12 hours.
According to Yevgeny Sidorov, a spokesman for All-Trade Unions of the Russian Federation, the rule of law is still not a part of Russian life and the government needs to attempt to reform the country's laws in a way that will help both employers and employees.
Sidorov said that unions are too cash-strapped to pursue cases reported from workplaces effectively.
He said that, in a country where corruption and insufficient understanding of legal practice remain common in the judiciary branch of government, employers are free to manipulate workers in whatever way they desire.