Russian factory workers plan protest during England World Cup match
The Red October steelworks sits in the shadow of the Volgograd Arena, where England will play Tunisia on Monday.
Angry workers at a Russian factory near the stadium where England’s footballers will play their first World Cup match are planning a protest to coincide with the game.
The world’s largest sports tournament has brought the Red October steelworks in Volgograd to a partial standstill.
Under measures intended to reduce stores of hazardous materials which could be used by terrorists, Russian factories have been asked to change the way they work before and during the World Cup, which runs until July 15.
Red October workers are also facing wage cuts and delays as the factory grapples with restructuring, a corruption investigation and tax troubles, prompting them to plan a protest timed for the city’s first World Cup match on Monday.
Authorities are apparently trying to head off trouble through pressure and promises of cash.
“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 Second World War Battle of Stalingrad, as the city used to be called.
“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.
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.
About 70 steelworkers staged a walkout on June 7, protesting over the factory’s problems.
“I need to feed my family and kids,” 37-year-old Denis Mozlyakov, who participated in the walkout, said. “I didn’t see another way out.”
The following day, union representatives penned an open letter to President Vladimir 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 on June 18 – the day of Volgograd’s first World Cup match, England versus 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 in Moscow, union representative Sergei Belousov – among those who signed the letter to Mr Putin – said “all our problems have been solved, there will be no rally – we’ll go to support the football instead!”
Other workers were less optimistic, describing their uncertainty and distrust in the administration’s promises.
Mr Mozlyakov, who has worked at the factory for three years, said: “Every day there are new rumours. 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 , said 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 modernisation 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 organising committee chief executive 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 would not close entirely but enter into an unspecified “technical regime” during the tournament, 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.”