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"If an infected person enters the factory, everything will fall apart"

In late March, two COVID-19 cases were discovered at the large AvtoVaz factory in the Russian city of Tolyatti. The next month, by order of the directors, around 30,000 people still turned up for work. How did the workers at this car factory respond?

Alexey Yurtaev
28 April 2020, 11.37am
A welder at the AvtoVaz car factory in Tolyatti, Russia. Photo from VKontakte.

On April 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a televised address in which he stated that the remainder of the month would be a non-working one, though average wages would continue to be guaranteed. Russia's regional authorities, he continued, would have to decide for themselves which additional restrictions to introduce.

On the eve of Putin's speech, the authorities in the Samara Region declared a stricter self-isolation regime. At the time, this region along the Volga River already had one of the country's highest numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Among those infected were two workers at AvtoVaz, an immense car assembly plant in the city of Tolyatti, where it employs about 35,000 people. By order of the president, all employees of the enterprise were sent home by April 3.

But in early April, Governor of the Samara Region Dmitry Azarov declared that AvtoVaz had urged the local authorities to be allowed to resume operations. The government gave permission, but on condition that the car plant adhere to the requirements of Rospotrebnadzor (the Russian state's consumer rights watchdog — ed.): social distancing, regular disinfection of the premises, and the provision of personal protective equipment to all workers.

According to Sergey Zaitsev, the chairman of the leading trade union among AvtoVaz workers, all necessary measures are being upheld at the car plant, and its production line has passed an inspection by Sanepinadzor, the Russian state's epidemiological service. In an interview for openDemocracy, Zaitsev added that workers who have reached or are soon to reach retirement age are attempting to leave work by taking sick leave, while workers with chronic health issues may stay at home if they can provide a doctor's note. According to the union chairman, about ten percent of the plant's 35,000 workers are currently at home.

The first working week back at AvtoVaz began on April 13. Workers at the car plant were soon taking to social media to complain about crowded buses, lower wages, and the poor quality of the masks provided. Shortly after arriving at work, some employees of the car plant were sent back home due to downtime and, in accordance with Article 157 Section 2 of Russia's Labour Code, paid a new rate at two thirds of their average wage. If the company had not resumed work, these employees would have received their wages in full.

OpenDemocracy asked several employees of AvtoVaz whether they were afraid to go to work during this pandemic, and whether the precautionary measures were indeed being followed. Here is what they said.

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A surgical mask provided to an AvtoVaz worker. Image from VKontakte.

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Sersh Sangerov, repairman, 48 years old

Literally a week before the enterprise's work was suspended, the managers decided on so-called "optimisation". Some of the workers from my workshop were booted out into a neighbouring workshop, thereby mixing one "herd" of workers with another. So they've actually increased the number of people per unit in the factory, and this at a time when COVID-19 is already stalking the planet.

I'm one of the repair staff: I'm called to work on equipment when I'm asked to fix something. I also have a repair site where I can be found unless somebody has called me. That's where I do routine, preventative, maintenance work. Previously, there were overhead hoists in the workshops and crane beams, so it was still possible to get the hang of things by transporting parts to a single worker. But then the effective managers came and cut up the cranes for scrap metal. And where the cranes once stood, they hung posters which urge us to work harder and offer other inspiring slogans. But now, if you need to replace anything which weighs more than 20 kilograms, workers have to get quite close to each other, almost so our bellies are touching, so there can be no talk of social distancing.

Some narrow-minded workers still don't believe in the virus and offer a hand to shake when saying hello

I travel to work by bus. When I came to work on the first day back (April 13 — ed.), it smelt like bleach. But not on any of the following days. The bus is half full on the way to work: all the seats are occupied, and about 10-15 people are standing in the aisle. Some of them wear surgical masks, some don't. The bus is even more crowded on the way back from work.

When this "quarantine vacation" ended and I returned to work, I didn't notice any special measures there — despite what the media said. My workplace hasn't changed. All they do now is check our temperatures — but only if we, the repairmen, want them to. In the bathrooms, they've hung up rolls of paper towels by the sinks and provided bins. Let's see how long that lasts.

As for personal protective equipment, they've issued us two home-made gauze masks. They say that they washed them themselves. But after half an hour of wearing them, my face itches. We try to wear them when our supervisors are present, because they wander around to ensure that people are doing so.

Some narrow-minded workers still don't believe in the virus and offer a hand to shake when saying hello. If you refuse it, they call you a fanatic. With that kind of attitude and approach to public health, we might be better off if we weren't allowed to come to work at all.

Anna Perova, transport worker, leader of the Unity trade union, 63 years old

We have two trade unions at AvtoVaz: the Union of Automobile and Farm Machinery Workers (UAFW) and Unity, our union, which I lead. At the same time, I work for the press-shop at the car plant, as a transport worker. This summer we're planning to hold a conference to re-elect our union's chapter, because I'm not getting any younger. All the other organisations are stillborn. Our views are very different from those of the UAFW, but we still can't bring ourselves to sit around the same table with them in negotiations. Wherever you go in the world, those types are called yellow-bellied. Their leader works for the authorities; for a good salary and a comfy chair he signs everything the employers need him to. For example, the other day a guy reached out to us; his fingertip was torn off during an accident at the factory. He's a member of the UAFW, but he turned to us. In any case, we'll still help him out and press charges.

It seems to me that withdrawing workers from production was a very sly manoeuvre. It was advantageous to them, since they saved money. According to Putin's order, we stayed at home from April 6 to April 13. Then they realised that it was actually very expensive to support workers in this way, so they appealed to [Samara Governor] Azarov, arguing that car production was an essential task. They explained this by saying that they could preserve their market share and keep workers on board. If we had stayed at home, we would have been paid our average earnings in full, by Putin's decree. But the workers were brought back to work, and some were sent home: for example, those who unpack and sort components on the conveyor belt. These days, they have nothing to send; not all components are available, because many producers are not operating nor delivering spare parts to the car plant. Therefore, these people are sent home, but not paid their average wages; they are paid two thirds of their salary. It's simple. That's just the way things work at the factory. So it turns out that they saved money on us.

It's impossible to self-isolate on a production line

In all honesty, nobody is observing any social distancing requirements at the car plant. We were given two masks to use over two weeks. But they are, to put it bluntly, disgraceful. They're sewn from poor quality gauze with rough cords. They get into your eyes and don't fasten properly over your ears. It's a complete sham. Some bought decent masks for themselves, either for 150 rubles from a shop or had them specially sewn to order. The memo which was distributed with the pair of masks advised us that they were to be used for two weeks, washed every day, and each one disposed after a week's use.

It's impossible to self-isolate on a production line. When the shift begins, the metal press operators gather together in a group to receive their tasks and then disperse. It's the same with the drivers and crane operators. To get to the production line, you need to go from the changing rooms through a tunnel. They've drawn markings and lines on the floor as a way to get people to stay at a distance from each other, but who pays any attention to them? Tired people hurry home after their shifts, they rush to change their overalls on the bus home, because it runs on a tight schedule. If you're late, you have to take a taxi, there's no other option. And on the bus it's the same: there's a sign hanging up which says "keep a distance of one and a half metres." But how? There are two seats. Either somebody sits next to me or near me. Nobody will stand on the bus if there are empty seats.

Stepan Velichko*, production controller, 45 years old


The virus was bought to us by people who lived and worked in Moscow and returned home. After all, Moscow and St Petersburg are on all the tourist trails. I have relatives in St Petersburg; I wanted to fly out there to visit them for the May holidays, but it wasn't to be. Just imagine, if we've been sitting in quarantine here for two weeks, they're already onto their second month!

The chassis workshop at the plant has been disbanded until mid-May. Two sick people were discovered there. I can't speak for the accuracy of this information, but as far as I'm aware, the guy was infected by his son, who flew in from abroad. He first touched down in Moscow, and flew from there to Samara. The should have checked him on arrival at Kurumoch (Samara's international airport — ed.), because he had returned from abroad. But they didn't, because he had flew in with a layover in Moscow. His father had worked in the factory for two days before it was discovered that he was infected. Everybody who interacted with him was quarantined; the whole crew had to go into self-isolation.

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A worker at the Tolyatti car plant in a mask and helmet. Photo from VKontakte.

As for anti-virus measures at our factory... well, they're trying, but sometimes things get absurd. Today, for example, I had a conversation with the head of security. It was all because I posted a photo of myself in a mask on VKontakte and wrote a joke beneath it. My post was reposted by others in Tolyatti, and eventually the factory management got wind of it. But why should I be blamed if others reposted it without my knowledge? That's what I told them. They were outraged by the fact that I was disregarding their concern for workers: they give us masks, and here I am joking about rthem and not wearing them — breaking the rules, so to speak. But aren't I wearing a mask in the photograph? It would probably be better if they took note of their own employees who walk around the plant without a mask and photograph the rule-breakers. Then again, only television companies are officially allowed to take photos at the factory.

All this pressure is pointless. I'm not some rookie; I've been working here since the nineties. I've worked at the conveyor belt, I've worked at the furnaces — I have plenty of experience. I remember the times when there were up to 100,000 people working at the plant, then everybody was slowly sent away and the numbers were reduced. They called me in for a talk with the director and asked me to transfer elsewhere. They said that me dragging my heels was letting down my fellow workers. On the whole, the bosses know how to apply pressure, but there are some people who know that the truth is on their side. Just as it was in the case of this post — it wasn't offensive in the slightest, what was wrong with it?

As a rule, I don't wear masks on the street. It's not difficult to do, I just don't see the point. Our bosses have filled their new role with such gusto that they even drive their cars in a mask. We never see them without masks anymore. At least we're allowed to remove them in the canteen, so we can eat.

The plant employs a total of 35,000 people. Due to quarantine, I guess that around 20 percent of them don't come to work anymore. Take my acquaintances: out of the ten I regularly see, I didn't see two of them today. Things have become a bit freer in the workshop. After work, we go to the showers. Usually they're completely jam-packed; now people stand at least one cubicle away from one another. In order to separate people and avoid crowds, the iron foundry has shared its work schedule. Other teams have, and now some people are working an hour or two later.

I'm sure that people are already feeling cooped up at home and wouldn't mind going out to work again. The demand for cars rises in April, which means there will be orders. Many people have even come to work with great enthusiasm, because they have got tired of being in the same apartment all day with their kids, who have to study remotely from home. Of course, it's always better to go to work; it keeps you on your toes.

I don't have any gripes with the sanitation measures. Cleaners come around every two hours and wipe down all the devices with some kind of solution. I don't use antiseptic, as I always carry wet wipes in my pocket. The work is already very dry and dusty, so I constantly have to wipe my hands. People even follow the rules in the smoking rooms: no more than two people enter at a time. There's no sense of panic at the factory, everything seems calm. If the air conditioner in their cabin breaks, they just run out, otherwise they'd be boiled alive. Sometimes the roof leaks, flooding parts of the warehouses where components are kept. Then the components rust. Little things like that.

The most interesting thing is that if somebody speaks about this publicly or, even worse, photographs a thermometer, he'll immediately be summoned for a chat with security. One guy photographed his wage slip showing a salary of 10,000 rubles with an advance of 4,000. So that everybody online could have a good laugh. When asked why he did this, he answered: "If I'm already a beggar, why should I make any excuses?"

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Workers recently made redundant regularly share photos on AvtoVaz's social media page. Photo from VKontakte.

Some people ended up with a black mark next to their names. Often literally — that mark means they won't be hired. They'll put a black mark next to people who quit their jobs and then posted rude photos on social media: holding a work document in one hand as they give the finger with the other in front of the car plant. It's not all like that, so it's unclear why the management acts so vindictively. We can't get a word in edgeways with them, but they always have to get the last word with us.

Natalya Makhneva*, process engineer, 36 years old


I don't work in the factory itself, but in the production workshop, which is in a nearby building. We sit in offices which are separate from the workshop itself, so I'm not always fully aware of what's going on there. At first, they crammed us into the offices. But while we once sat back to back, there's now some distance between us.

We were brought back to work on April 13. The masks they handed out looked as if the management had sewn them themselves over the weekend. It's kind of two layers of gauze which we must wear and wash regularly. The officials who come and inspect working conditions say that you need to wear the masks even at the office; that is, to work in them. Of course, people won't do this because they'll suffocate in those things. Personally, I bought my own masks at a pharmacy ages ago and I use those rather than the gauze things they gave us. I've seen others wearing good quality masks, but I don't know why some people were given bad masks and others good quality ones.

They take our temperature with a temperature gun when we come into work in the morning. But beyond that, several departments have to make do with one thermometer between them. We have somebody who walks around, wearing gloves, tasked with taking everybody's temperature. We always have a laugh about the results: can a healthy person really have a temperature at 35 degrees? One of my colleagues got a reading of 38 degrees, so she was sent to the health clinic. When they took her temperature there, it showed 36.6 degrees. It's all a mockery. Today I apparently had a temperature of 36 degrees, but I know that's not the case. At that temperature I'd feel awful straight away and would do nothing but lie down.

Nobody finds this funny. Everybody is afraid, because the situation in the city is starting to deteriorate

On the very first day back there were a lot of people at work. You could sense it from the crowd in the bus. When I was taking my kids to kindergarten, after a couple of days they asked me "Will you go? Otherwise, parents just collect their kids from us and go home." I guess those parents had been sent home on two thirds' wages, because the plant doesn't need them. There's not the amount of work there once was. So somebody goes out to work for a little while and then he's sent home at a decreased salary. That's the scheme which was devised so that the plant didn't operate at a loss.

At work we're forbidden from using the air conditioners and hand dryers. They given us chlorhexidine disinfectant, but no hand sanitising gel. The men in the workshop have some alcohol. They've put markings all around the premises, but we all leave from our shift together. Some people wear masks, some don't. One sneeze, and everybody gets infected. A crowd forms because although some people leave work early, they are forced to wait by the turnstile, which lets us out at a certain time. You'll only get out a little earlier than others.

If something were to happen at the plant now, it would be explosive. Nobody finds this funny. Everybody is afraid, because the situation in the city is starting to deteriorate. If an infected person enters the factory, everything will collapse — most of our workers are either close to retirement or of retirement age. Young people almost never come to work here. Nobody wants to toil for this amount of money. In my department, we suspect that some information is being kept secret. A friend of mine works as a nurse in a hospital and she recently fell ill with a fever and sore throat. We gave her a call, and she said that Medgorodok (the city clinical hospital — ed.) is severely understaffed. Some staff are sick, and others have gone to Moscow to earn money. Just imagine, off to Moscow to earn money! That's what some people do, while there's nobody left to work at the hospital.

Even the Muscovites are coming here now. Those who once went off in search of work are returning. So now people are making a fuss. Their attitude is: "What the hell are they playing at? Why is all Moscow coming over here?" There are all sorts of people from the plant's management who travel to Moscow regularly. There are foreigners, too — French and Koreans who visited us even once the borders had been closed. I guess the government is just giving the impression over television that it's taking some measures, and in actual fact is doing whatever it pleases.

Nina Zvereva*, welder, 49 years old


I'm with the welding production line: we work on the Lada Kalina, Lada Granta, and Datsun. We work alone, but if you're working on a particularly heavy piece, you can't do without somebody's help. If the spot welding machine breaks down, I call the repairman straight away. If he can't fix it, then the locksmith comes along. That's already a whole team. So as you can appreciate, even though the plant is huge, social distancing can't always be respected.

Those of us at the welding plant were given two masks each. One of them was made from a protective material which was once used to wrap car headlights, and is now used for personal protective equipment. The men have such red faces from wearing them! And we women have softer skin, so I don't know what'll happen for us. That's why I haven't started to wear them, but use regular fabric instead, which I bought myself. For safety reasons, welders still need to wear a welding visor over it so that, God forbid, the mask doesn't catch fire from sparks. It probably weighs around a kilogram; it's a huge helmet. Usually we wear safety goggles too, but I'm not used to them. My head hurt, it's all so heavy.

That's how things are in this country: if there's no work in town, nobody will rock the boat.

The thing is, we've reduced our load by half. But now we get less anyway: we're paid at the full rate for the first four hours and then at two thirds of that amount for the second half of our shift. It's not difficult to understand that before, when we were sitting at home, we received more money than we do now. Only now, we have to go to work. But that's how things are in this country: if there's no work in town, nobody will rock the boat. The trade union and the management are constantly urging us to go to work, or the plant will go bankrupt. Yeah, go bankrupt! Or maybe those top managers could not get a million rubles, then there'd be enough to go around for everybody.

If we could choose to go to work or stay at home, I'm sure everybody would choose to stay at home. But no worker would ask for that himself. Stay at home and still receive your average salary — who would turn that down? But nobody has asked us that. For example, the boss just called me and told me that I had to leave.

They haven't taken any proper measures. Probably what's happened is that the higher ups have asked us to go to work in order to ensure that the plant receives funds from the local authorities or federal treasury for sanitary and epidemiological measures — funds which go straight into their pockets. If somebody gets sick, the likelihood of infecting others is very high. Think about it: this person first takes public transport, then goes past a turnstile, then goes with the flow of workers to the factory floor, where he starts working, interacts with people, greets them, washes in the same place, and eats in the same dining room. Our department alone is designed for around 400 workers.

Two people here were sent to hospital after their temperature was taken. Surely if somebody is diagnosed with a virus, then their supervisor would call the clinic and ask them to register him as having an acute respiratory syndrome. But that's just speculation, of course. That said, last week (April 13-20 — ed.), I learnt that one of these men had been taken to hospital in an ambulance and the other was sent to a clinic. He had to walk there himself.

I'm not afraid of getting ill. Even when we were stuck at home, we all went outside on the same day to buy groceries from the same shops. We all stood near our neighbours in the lift. We may get sick at work, we may get sick in town — either way, the virus is already here. The devil is not so terrible as he is painted.

Translated from the Russian by Maxim Edwards


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