Russians count cost of payment in kind

Helen Womack meets workers who have to sell their own products to survive
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The Independent Online
On the road to Valdai, the beautiful lake district between Moscow and St Petersburg, ghostly figures loom out of the twilight, holding up crystal goblets, as if in some strange piece of theatre. They are workers from the Krasnoe Mai (Red May) glass factory who, for the past 13 months, have received their wages not in cash but in kind, and are obliged to stand on the roadside hawking their product before they can eat.

Cars zoom by, ignoring them. When I stopped my car, dozens of the crystal- sellers ran up. When I asked for an interview, they backed off. But when they realised I was British, they relaxed a little. "Come on guys," said Svetlana, a middle-aged woman. "The Valdai police are hardly going to read a London newspaper."

Svetlana explained how she and her friends worked only every other week at the 130-year old factory because its financial difficulties were such that electricity was rationed. In theory, they should receive wages of one million roubles (pounds 150) per month. But instead they were paid in the cut-glass vases and wine glasses which they sold in the rest of their working time and in their leisure hours. The trade itself was legal, but the traffic police moved them on and fined them, saying they caused road accidents.

"In fact we have not caused a single accident," said Svetlana. "We just stand at the side waiting for the motorists to stop ... Sometimes tourists pull up and buy a vase for 100,000 roubles. But we can stand here from morning to night and go home without making a sale."

All over Russia, workers are being paid in kind and their standard of living very much depends on whether the goods their factories happen to produce are in demand or not. The workers of the Yaroslavl tyre plant are paid in tyres and have no problem as there is a lively market in car parts. Likewise Siberian workers paid in tampons always find willing buyers. But crystal is another matter. As Svetlana said: "You can live without it, can't you?"

Svetlana is married to a man who also works at the glass factory. There are few other employment opportunities, and they have two teenage children to feed. "Can your readers in the West imagine what it would be like if they had not only to work but market whatever they made? In your case," she joked, "you'd be selling newspapers on the street."

In the run-up to the presidential elections last month, Boris Yeltsin promised he would make it a priority to pay workers who have been waiting months for their wages. Indeed, a special fund was made available to make payments to key factories and buy the votes of their workers.

But, after the election, it is clear the problem has not gone away. In the far eastern port of Vladivostok last week, minersthreatened to commit suicide by throwing themselves down mineshafts if the government did not pay them. In the far east, corrupt local government officials are as much to blame as Moscow bureaucrats for the failure to deliver state money to those who have earned it.

Svetlana voted for Mr Yeltsin and, reluctantly, would do so again. "There's no alternative," she said.

Along with the crystal traders, the road to Valdai is lined with people selling bilberries, once picked as a hobby, now gathered by many to make ends meet. In the petrol stations, children of nine and ten work the petrol pumps for tips. In some families, these youngsters are the main breadwinners.