Work autonomy is decreasing in Russia

1.11.2018
ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 4/2018. As economic growth has slowed down, the positive development of the early 2000s has been replaced by an increasing uncertainty regarding job permanence or career paths, Jouko Nikula writes.

After the tumultuous 1990s, Russia’s social and economic development in the early 2000s was positive in many respects. Wages increased, and life in general became more stable and predictable. But how has Russian working life changed from the late 1990s to the present day?

The transition to capitalism changed some aspects of Russian working life, even though its basic structure largely remained intact. This is shown by our broad survey data Social Distinctions in Modern Russia (SDMR), which was gathered in 1998, 2007 and 2015 in collaboration with researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences. The majority of employees work in the private sector, and the proportion of employees in the private services has grown the most. Today, the service industry employs two thirds of the labour force. Three quarters of women work in the service industry, whereas half of the men still work in production – industry, transport and construction.

The wage gap between genders has remained the same: a woman’s rouble is circa 80 kopecks. The largest wage gap is found in the extractive and the trade industries as well as in the science and research field. For jobs in municipal services or teaching, social welfare and health services, which were already poorly paid during the Soviet era, wages continue to be low and have clearly fallen behind other fields, despite campaigns to bridge the gap. Wage winners of recent years include jobs in the extractive industry, and in finance and defence as well as in public administration.

The transition to capitalism has made management structures leaner in work organisations, as the number of formal managers has decreased. At the same time, managers increasingly hold more power. According to our survey data, Russian working life has grown more rigid in the last few years. This is manifested in the decreased opportunities employees have to influence their working pace or work tasks. Employees in middle-class professional groups in the private sector, in particular, have experienced their work autonomy becoming narrower, although the level of work freedom has also decreased in the public sector, and the public sector has not previously allowed for a particularly slack working pace or high employee autonomy. Employees’ opportunities to decide on their working hours or work tasks have remained largely unchanged from the late 1990s to the mid-2010s: these matters are decided by the managers.

Unemployment has been low despite the two recessions endured by the country – one in 2009, the second in 2014

Russian working life continues to lean on Soviet-era practices, which manifests as tight-knit work collectives and a flexible working life for companies and employees alike. Companies’ flexibility with regard to their employees is visible in a hesitance to resort to layoffs even during harsh periods; employees, for their part, are willing to agree to wage flexibility in order to keep their jobs. Unemployment has been low despite the two recessions endured by the country – one in 2009, the second in 2014; the second caused by economic sanctions in reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Companies have kept their employees on their payroll, and in return, employees have had to accept lower wages, extra leave without pay, shortened working weeks and lower production goals.

With some exceptions, the trade union movement has mostly continued to serve the role of a guarantor of social stability. This is the case even though our survey data indicates that unionisation has increased and employees are not as suspicious towards unions as they were in the mid-2000s, when economic growth brought about a boost in employment and the well-being of employees.

As economic growth has slowed down, the positive development of the early 2000s has been replaced by an increasing uncertainty regarding job permanence or career paths. This is indicated by an increase both in employee mobility and in precarious employment. What is permanent, however, is the hierarchical characteristic of Russian working life, as well as its flexibility.

Jouko Nikula works as a Senior Research Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute.

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