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Unions sceptical over labour promises

Trade unions are sceptical Dmitry Medvedev will be able to deliver an improvement in pay and conditions in the work place. Medvedev blasted appalling figures about deaths and injuries in a meeting on Tuesday and fumed about an on-going rise in accidents and breaches in labour laws.

Shocking statistics

As he gave the order to improve conditions before the May Day workers' holidays, the president listed the grim statistics of suffering on the factory floor.

"About 8,000 people were left disabled," he said. "In processing plants 537 people were killed last year, 279 died in mining enterprises and 82 were killed at metallurgical plants.

"And this is in 2011, not during some period of primitive grasping for profits."

Employers to blame

Conditions vary in different enterprises, and many come up to Western standards, particularly those with foreign capital, according to Petr Bizyukov, an economist at the centre for social and labour studies.

"But then there are awful conditions where all conceivable standards are broken," he told The Moscow News. "These are the small and average enterprises. Those enterprises located in peripheral cities."

While many incidents are linked to workers' behaviour, Medvedev insisted that it was up to employers to promote a safe environment and inspire greater discipline.

But Galina Yurova, a representative of agricultural union Profagro, said she did not expect fast changes and the state should "establish the rules of the game."

Under investment

Union representatives said that a lack of investment was contributing to the fatality figures.

"Many employers, even those whose businesses are profitable, try not to invest in equipment upgrades and improved conditions," Alexander Shershukov of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions told gzt.ru.

"If they do, they make a minimum commitment. They prefer a sweatshop system."

He called for draconian penalties against bosses who don't deliver safe working environments.

Catch 22

The implementation of Medvedev's May Day plan is likely to fall to Gostrudinspektsiya ­ the state labour watchdog ­ and Yurova says that new laws would lead to few real changes in the work place.

"It would be possible to develop target programs, but, in fact, their realization will end up in the hands of the petty bureaucracy," she told The Moscow News. "It's a vicious cycle."

Yurova added that the government needed a genuine carrot and stick policy to ensure firms adhered to labour standards.

But corruption in the inspection watchdog already prevents the current laws from being enforced.

"The problem is that these organisations are corrupt," said Bizyukov. "They don't aim to find an infringement to get rid of it, but to blackmail the head of the company and extort money."

Union power

The lack of power of independent trade unions means workers have little influence over conditions, and those who complain are dismissed and harassed, according to Bizyukov.

"Only when trade unions and ordinary workers are connected to this process will it be possible to expect real changes," he said. "Trade unions should receive a wide range of rights to control conditions, down to the right of stopping production."

Safety breaches

Last May's explosion at a coal mine in Mezhdurechensk, Siberia, killed 90 people and brought crowds on to the streets to protest against claimed safety breaches.

Miners at the colliery, which was hit by two methane explosions, told RIA Novosti that they were told to switch off gas detectors to maintain production levels.

And staff also said that they were under financial pressure to meet production targets which accounted for almost half their earnings.

Anna Sulimina contributed to this article

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