Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Stability and Precarity in the Lives and Narratives of Working-Class Men in Putin's Russia

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Stability and Precarity in the Lives and Narratives of Working-Class Men in Putin's Russia

Article excerpt


A recent article in The Guardian newspaper (Luhn 2015) explored a number of forms of exploitation experienced by labourers working on one of Russia's venues for the 2018 World Cup. Despite becoming one of the world's most expensive sports venues, the article reported, the money was not trickling down to construction workers, with many saying that they had not been paid for up to three months. In addition, poor working conditions and inconsistent safety standards were claimed to have been responsible for the deaths of at least five men at the site since 2011. The sheer number of subcontractors involved, however, made it difficult to point the finger at any particular party; general contractor Transstroi said that all of its workers were paid on time and safety regulations were followed.

Pieces of investigative journalism such as this play a crucial role in exposing exploitative employment practices across the world, and make them comprehensible by presenting them in familiar terms - workers have not been paid, safety standards have not been met, no one can be held to account. However in different parts of the world, forms of worker exploitation have their own specific histories and contexts in different parts of the world that shape both the objective conditions of the insecurity workers are exposed to and the subjective experience of that insecurity in very different ways. In Russia's case, the experience of the labourers at the stadium is the tip of a very deep iceberg that has formed over the past two and a half decades in the context of a massive economic transformation - or 'transition' - that has yet to reach a stable end point and is unlikely ever to do so. Instances of labour exploitation such as these are all the more significant for the fact that they run directly counter to the official rhetoric of the Putin administrations of recent years, which have consistently claimed that they will deliver the economic stability and social security that was so lacking during the early transition period (Makarkin and Oppenheimer 2011: 1459).

This article undertakes a broader exploration of the changing shape and experience of insecurity amongst labourers in contemporary Russia, and attempts to locate their experiences both historically and in a wider international perspective. As well as drawing on employment and income data to shed light on patterns of wage non-payment and other forms of income insecurity, it draws upon recent ethnographic research with working-class men between the ages of 25 and 40 employed in a range of manual occupations predominantly in the manufacturing and construction sectors. Although male manual labourers are not the only workers to suffer forms of precariousness or insecurity in the Russian labour market, social expectations of men to be providers for their families, and the concentration of income insecurity in 'blue-collar' sectors of the economy, make them an important case. The ethnographic data, gathered in the cities of Moscow and Ul'yanovsk between 2012 and 2013, thus allows the article to shed light on the ways in which the insecurities described in The Guardian report impact upon the lives of ordinary working men, and the extent to which they are able to buy into the rhetoric of 'stability'.

Labour Flexibility in Post-Soviet Russia

A number of commentators have pointed to the growing flexibility of employment relations in recent decades, as the globalised nature of neoliberal capitalism requires employers to be able to constantly adjust to the volatility of world markets. In most Western economies, flexible forms of employment have increasingly allowed for the transfer of adjustment costs and the risks of operating in the global economy onto employees (Beck 2000), and in doing so, have contributed to the emergence of a variety of forms of precariousness and insecurity (Kalleberg 2009; Standing 2011; Castells 2000). Although, as Standing (2011) argues, such insecurities may characterise the employment of workers across the breadth of the labour market, they are nevertheless concentrated amongst those employed in areas where non-standard contracts and the casualisation of employment are most common. …

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