In World Cup's shadow, layoffs and anger at Russian factory
VOLGOGRAD, Russia (AP) — Beneath Volgograd's baking early morning sun, clouds of midges pester factory workers at the Red October steelworks as they clock in. These workers are the lucky ones — they're still employed, while many of their colleagues were temporarily laid off because of the World Cup.
The layoffs have aggravated troubles at the struggling factory, prompting angry workers to plan a protest timed for the city's first World Cup match Monday. Authorities are apparently trying to head off trouble through pressure and promises of cash.
Welcome to the daily realities of President Vladimir Putin's Russia, even as he tries to use the Cup to show off his economic and political successes.
"I am worried about what is going on here," says 38-year-old metal welder Mikhail Privalov, mopping the sweat off his brow as he enters the factory, which sits in the shadow of the gleaming Volgograd Arena. "The management is handling this situation very badly."
The factory, whose faded red and yellow front still bears the emblems of the Soviet Union, is famous for weathering shells and gunfire from Adolf Hitler's armies and continuing steel production during the vicious World War II Battle of Stalingrad, as the city used to be called.
Today, the world's largest sports tournament has brought the plant to a partial standstill.
Under measures intended to reduce stores of hazardous materials which could be used by terrorists, factories have been asked to change the way they work before and during the World Cup, which opened Thursday and runs through July 15.
Meanwhile, Red October workers are facing wage cuts and delays as the factory grapples with restructuring, a corruption investigation and tax troubles.
"We're continuing to work but we don't really know why, when our wages have been cut so low. The administration keeps promising us things but who believes them?" said Vitaly, a father of two who spoke on condition his last name not be used. Many workers fear repercussions if they speak out publicly.
The exact number of people on temporary layoffs is unclear, but local journalists and factory workers estimate that more than half of the factory's 3,500 employees are out of work for the next month. Several attempts by The AP to contact factory management were ignored.
About 70 steelworkers staged a walkout June 7, protesting the factory's problems.
"I need to feed my family and kids," 37-year-old Denis Mozlyakov, who participated in the walkout, told The Associated Press through his VKontakte profile, Russia's alternative to Facebook. "I didn't see another way out."
The following day, union representatives penned an open letter to Putin, in which they described mass layoffs and insufficient funds for the full payment of wages, calling it "a catastrophic situation. which could bring (the factory) to a complete standstill."
The union then announced a protest rally June 18 - the day of Volgograd 's first World Cup match, England vs. Tunisia.
Since then, the administration has sought to placate workers, notably with assurances that May's delayed wages will be paid.
As the World Cup opened Thursday in Moscow, union representative Sergei Belousov — among those who signed the letter to Putin — told The AP, "all our problems have been solved, there will be no rally - we'll go to support the football instead!"
Some 10 other workers contacted by The AP over Vkontakte were less optimistic, describing their uncertainty and distrust in the administration's promises. They declined to meet in person for fear of backlash or threats to their personal safety.
Mozlyakov, who has worked at the factory for three years, said, "Every day there are new rumors. I can't believe any of them. The factory has turned into a swamp of lies and deception."
Sergei Zhukov, a local economic journalist who runs the internet portal volpromex.ru , says the factory's financial difficulties reach far beyond the World Cup. In 2016, six plant managers were detained in a corruption scandal, suspected of stealing millions of dollars. Meanwhile the tax inspectorate has launched legal action against the current management, which denies wrongdoing.
In addition, he said, the factory is undergoing modernization that is requiring production cutbacks.
"The current situation is linked with general, deeper problems at the factory," he said. "With or without the World Cup, these problems would still exist."
Yet Red October's troubles have been exacerbated by security measures introduced by Russia's Federal Security Service ahead of the tournament, which ordered many factories to stop or change certain procedures.
"The purpose is to avoid the use of hazardous materials which can possibly be a threat to large masses of people," World Cup organizing committee CEO Alexei Sorokin said last month. "The use and production of hazardous materials will be somewhat reduced, but the purpose is not to shut down factories."
Volgograd Mayor Andrei Kosolapov said in May that factories in his city wouldn't close entirely but enter into an unspecified "technical regime" during the Cup, an apparent euphemism for partial closure.
"The priority is the championship, the people are secondary," said factory shift supervisor Dmitry Egorov. "The people are left without the means of survival and the enterprise managers and representatives do not care."
James Ellingworth and Angela Charlton in Moscow contributed.