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Precarious employment and workers struggle in Russia today: the case of Kirill Ukraintsev, chairman of the Kurier trade union

Originally published: Russian Communist Workers Party on May 13, 2022 by Alexey Pryakhin (more by Russian Communist Workers Party) (Posted May 17, 2022)

This article is from speech on May 3, 2022 at the joint seminar of the Russian Social Forum and the Congress of Education and Science Workers “Trade Union Movement and Labor Legislation 

The problem of precarious employment, non-standard labor relations concerns today an increasing number of employees. 

The most significant and sensitive aspects of precarious employment for workers from the point of view of the International Labor Organization are: 

  • – low salary.
  • – low level of protection against termination of employment relations.
  • – lack of access to social protection mechanisms, benefits and allowances.
  • – lack or limitation of the opportunity for workers to exercise their rights at the workplace, primarily the right to a trade union.

The official reports of the ILO state the transition in recent decades from standard to non-standard forms of employment in industrialized and developing countries. At the same time, in developing countries, workers employed in non-standard forms of labor have always made up a significant part of the labor force, but recently, non-standard forms of employment have begun to spread to those segments of the labor market where standard forms previously prevailed. 

One of the actively developing forms of precarious employment is work in the so-called “platform companies”, where formally the company and the employee are independent partners operating within the framework of civil law relations. In fact, such relationships allow corporations to own nothing but an electronic application and the contracts of an “army” of [“self-employed”] precarious workers, while taking on almost no social obligations and protecting themselves from the organization of an official union. According to the forecasts of Russian “experts”, a significant increase in the share of workers employed in such platform companies is inevitable in the country. 

In fact, we are returning to a new [“shape-up”] day job. Today, around the world, there is a rollback in the field of labor rights and guarantees to the times of more than one hundred and fifty years ago. And only the mass self-organization of all groups of hired workers, including at the international level, is capable of stopping this trend.

I can demonstrate the situation with precarious employment in Russia using the example of such a seemingly successful industry as cinematography. Despite the presence of well-known successful participants in the film process, which we often see in the media, the bulk of film workers are in a precarious state. A typical example of the level of prosperity of workers in the film industry: a year ago in Moscow (!) there was a conflict when a number of actors of mass scenes demanded to raise the rate for a shift (12 hours) to 1200 rubles, i.e. at least up to 100 rubles [$1.50] per hour. 

People live from project to project, for almost every film or series a separate legal entity is created, which, moreover, is overgrown with a bunch of intermediaries. Contracts, if provided by the employer, are overwhelmingly of a [“independent contractor”] civil law nature. Moreover, the very fact that an employee has a contract on the site is an achievement. There are many cases when ordinary film workers do not receive anything at all for projects – they are simply “dropped”. 

And to prove in court the fact of labor relations is extremely difficult, if not impossible. So, for example, it happened with the Russian members of the film crew of the film “Cobra”, created by the Indian company “Seven Screen Studios”. People were not paid wages for more than two dozen shifts. 

Therefore, the trade union conducts, among other things, educational work in this area, explaining the importance of both the very existence of an agreement on the site, preferably a labor contract [not a “self-employment” civil law contract], and its direct content, and prepares draft standard agreements for film workers in certain professions. 

On the other hand, we see how spontaneous self-organization in various workshops intensifies when workers collectively approve minimum wages and inform manufacturing companies about this. The Interregional Trade Union of Cinematographers regularly collects current wage rates on the Russian film market and publishes them on its website.

Today there is a more acute situation in the field of precarious employment in Russia. One of the active detachments of the proletariat, which is in conditions of precarious employment, are employees of the largest delivery services, such as Yandex.Food, Samokat, Delivery Club and others. They organized themselves into the interregional trade union “Courier”. 

As is known, in connection with current events, official annual inflation has already been predicted at a level of at least 20%. It applies to everyone: both employees and company owners. How does the Delivery Club deal with the negative consequences? It cut base rates by a third, which cut couriers’ earnings by about 20%. Those workers who do not have any social rights, because are hired under a [“independent contractor”] civil law contract, working in difficult (constantly on the street and in snow and rain) and dangerous (constant threat of an accident) conditions, among other things, lose almost half of their salary with the same workload.  

Of course, this could not but cause indignation. On April 22, a spontaneous strike began in Moscow,and on April 25, several dozen couriers went to the office of the Delivery Club demanding to cancel the reduction in payment for the completed order.

On the same evening, Kirill Ukraintsev, chairman of the Kurier trade union, was arrested, and after a couple of days he was sent to a pre-trial detention center for 2 months. Formally, he is charged with the infamous Article 212.1 on repeated violations of holding public events (with a term of up to 5 years). But the union believes the real reason is the fair and perfectly legitimate protest of the Delivery Club couriers.

This is an extremely alarming precedent–a private company, together with law enforcement agencies, is carrying out repressions against the head of an organization that puts forward purely economic demands.

Today, many trade union and public organizations have come out in support of Kirill. Together with comrades from the RCWP and the Left Bloc, we are actively participating in the campaign in support of the trade union leader and will contribute to its development, because this issue concerns today any ordinary worker who dares to defend his right to decent work. And I propose, on behalf of the Russian Social Forum, to make a statement in support of Comrade Kirill Ukraintsev and the just struggle of the Kurier trade union.     

Alexey Pryakhin is head of the St. Petersburg organization, Interregional trade union of cinematographers, and an activist of the Russian Communist Workers’ Party.

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