Labour disputes are an important element of both the economy and business and serve to improve labour laws and employee/employer interaction. However, this subject has not been adequately studied in Russia – primarily because labour disputes are rare, even though the relevant framework, including employment contracts and trade unions, is in place, and secondly, because little is known about the ways in which people behave when there is a workplace conflict.
"It is still unclear to many what a labour dispute is and how it differs from social conflict. A common understanding of a labour dispute or conflict is either very broad or very narrow, such as a strike. The Russian law defines a labour dispute as a formally registered disagreement between parties submitted to a relevant institution for settlement. This definition is too narrow and leaves out many types of informal conflict which never find their way to official statistics," explained Irina Kozina in her presentation of the report 'Workplace Cooperation and Conflict as Seen by Russian Employees' during a seminar hosted by the HSE Laboratory for Labour Market Studies (LLMS).
Kozina and her colleagues made an attempt to fill the gap in labour market research. They identified and analysed social sentiments and attitudes concerning the balance of interests between employees and employers,employee representation and remedies available, and ways that different employee groups perceive labour disputes, the forms they can take, and methods of resolution.
In 2009 and 2010, having surveyed employees of a number of major Russian companies with good employee benefits packages and almost 100% union membership – including Lukoil Perm Refinery, Perm Motors, and Leningrad Mechanical Plant – the authors estimated the average rate of workplace conflict as a fairly low 18%, meaning that one in five employees were in conflict with the employer. Most employees (98%) took their disputes to either internal or external authorities, such as courts.
Wage issues, such as arrears, wage structure, and deductions and stoppages in wages were the biggest source of employee/employer disputes. In particular, employees were concerned about the growing proportion of informal pay leading to reduced credit opportunities and uncertainty about the future.
"There are often tensions between highly-paid managers and skilled workers. The latter find it unfair that young people working in offices should have salaries comparable to those of skilled workers," said Kozina.
As a first step, employees usually try to find a solution informally by talking to their superiors or seeking assistance from an acquaintance in the trade union; failing that, they take the dispute to court.
The survey revealed, however, that more than half of employees affected (51.7%) felt there were no resources available to help them resolve their problem and preferred to rely on themselves, not trusting anyone. Some 28.2% discussed the matter with their boss, 24.2% sought union assistance, and 20% trusted the court to settle the dispute. "We found a high level of confidence in courts, despite all the talk of legal nihilism," Kozina emphasized. “Statistics available to the Russian Supreme Commercial Court indicate that most labour disputes are about wage arrears, and employees win such disputes in 95% of cases." In contrast, employers tend to win in dismissal disputes—which explains, perhaps, why such claims are rarely taken to court.
Having analyzed social sentiments and attitudes concerning workplace interactions (cooperation or alienation among the work team), Kozina found three main types of attitudes: no attitude whatsoever towards their employer and co-workers (40% of respondents), alienation (30%), and collaboration (30% ).
"We found virtually equal proportions of people tending towards alienation and collaboration. We also found that younger employees tend to have neutral attitudes and are less prone to conflict, while highly skilled male workers are the most conflict-prone group," Kozina noted. When asked whether the employer's interests could ever coincide with those of the employees, 18% answered 'yes', 39% said 'no', and 43% answered 'yes and no'.
The study's authors conclude that the situation in Russia’s labour market in terms of people's willingness to collaborate is very unstable. The authors identified two opposing trends: on the one hand, passive-aggressive attitudes, social apathy, tolerance of violations, and a lack of trust towards people and institutions may lead to spontaneous protest without a meaningful strategy, leadership, and target; but on the other hand, there is evidence of advocacy for collective interests, collaboration, and organized conflict based on reasonable demands and a clearly defined leadership.