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Grain truck drivers in south Russia wage war on corruption

A strike by Russian grain hauliers, demanding higher pay and an end to corruption, has gripped the south of the country. RU

Alexander Pylayev
20 February 2019

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Truck driver in the parking lot for heavy trucks behind the Moscow ring road. Photo: Ilya Pitalev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

A widespread strike of grain hauliers in the south of Russia is gaining momentum. Their main grievance is low rates of pay for their work, but they are also protesting against the bribes they are forced to pay highway police. The protest started as a conflict between the drivers and the export companies that offered low rates for their deliveries. Unless they hugely overload their trucks (and thus break the law), drivers end up working at a loss.

This situation has created a domino effect, dragging several social, economic and legal issues into the equation. According to Gruzavtotrans organisation, there are now several thousand drivers involved in the strike – and it is affecting Russia’s Caucasus regions. The authorities, meanwhile, prefer to turn a blind eye.

The miserly rates paid by companies for the transport of their grain – 1.43 roubles (less than £0.02) a kilogramme – force drivers to overload their trucks in order to avoid making a loss. But driving overloaded vehicles is not only illegal (official fines are 150,000-500,000 roubles, or £1,770-£6,000), it is hazardous for all traffic on the roads, and creates prime conditions for corruption. Drivers often pay bribes to take excess loads through highway police checkpoints.

But they are so tired of this situation that they have organised a protest action, uniting nearly 5,000 people across Krasnodar and Stavropol provinces as well as Rostov, Voronezh, Kursk and Astrakhan. So far, they’ve halted the delivery of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of grain to ports and dragged corruption into the headlines.

What constitutes overloading?

To understand the current situation, it’s useful to know what constitutes an “overload” for grain trucks. A standard truck can transport 20-25 tonnes – but the drivers are paid by the kilogramme, and the low rate they are paid makes it not worth their while to move with that kind of load. So they raise the sides of their trucks and load 50, and sometimes even 70 tonnes: this makes their trip profitable, although it also creates a hazard for all other road users.

“Several times I’ve witnessed an overloaded truck breaking an axle or losing its wheels on the road,” Krasnodar car enthusiast Alexander Savin tells me. “And a breakdown like this immediately turns into a traffic accident affecting every vehicle nearby. Chunks of iron and shreds of tyres fly all over the place, the truck’s side panels open and the grain pours out onto the road. Other road users slam on their brakes and either slide into a ditch or collide with one another. People can be injured or even killed, and all because of overloading.”

Trucks carrying excess loads are also a hazard for road surfaces: in 2017, for example, the Krasnodar regional authorities were forced to pass a law limiting the movement of heavy goods vehicles on busy roads during the hot summer months – the sun-warmed asphalt was literally melting under their weight, producing troughs that required major repairs. The grain trucks were, of course, not the only culprits, but their contribution was considerable.

War over a few kopecks

The most flagrant legal irregularities begin when an overloaded grain truck approaches a Russian highway patrol checkpoint. Officially, it should be stopped and refused permission to travel further. But in practice, this is not what happens. Bribery is one of the main issues that the conflict between the truckers and the grain companies has brought to light.

“Unfortunately, the drivers know exactly how much they have to pay at each separate checkpoint to enable them to pass through unhindered,” Vladimir Matyagin, chair of the all-Russian Gruzavtotrans (“Goods Transport”) Association tells me.

“And the sums vary with the regions: the closer to the Black Sea ports, the larger the sum. In the Rostov region, for example, it is 3,000 roubles (£35) per truck, and even more in the Krasnodar region. So if you’re driving from Volgograd to Novosibirsk, for instance, the overall sum can reach 10,000 roubles (£118). And, believe it or not, this all has to be taken into account. Drivers end up in a ridiculous situation: on the one hand, they need to overload their vehicles to avoid making a loss – while on the other they have to bribe the Highway Patrol guys to turn a blind eye.”

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Traffic police officer. Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0: InfoPro / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The aim of the strike is to put an end to this system of payments. It’s basically a war on corruption: if the checkpoints refuse to let trucks with excessive loads through, the truckers will just not drive anywhere at the current low rates. And the companies will then have to raise the rates to an acceptable level. For the moment some truckers have, nonetheless, agreed to carry excess loads and are not taking part in the strike.

There are other reasons for this protest, too. “The action was triggered by an increase in the price of fuel,” Andrey Gruzdenko, one of the protests’ most active (and public) participants tells me. “The thing is that the overloading issue has been around for a long time, but it was always down to the individual driver. If he had an excess load, he would earn more, but he made some money even without one. Now diesel prices have rocketed and absorbed all the truckers’ profits. It’s completely impossible to avoid overloading: there would automatically be a loss on your trip.”

The Gruzavtotrans association didn’t initiate this protest, but is in contact with the drivers and helping them stick up for their rights. The current strike has no official leader or staff who would coordinate the actions of everyone involved in it. Truckers from different regions only have contact with one another via internet messaging, which they use to coordinate actions.

According to Gruzavtotrans’s Vladimir Matyagin, the association’s activists have even made a video, secretly shot at one of the Southern Federal District’s checkpoints, where you can see an inspector allowing an overloaded truck through on a stamped document received in return for cash. The video has been sent to law enforcement agencies, but they are yet, it seems, to receive a response.

“At the moment, the drivers want their rates to be raised by a very small amount,” says Alexander Tipikin of the Rostov branch of Gruzavtotrans. The present rate is 1.43 roubles per kilo. “The truckers would be satisfied with 1.75 roubles per kilo. So it’s a question of an extra 32 kopecks a kilo. There are currently 200 people on strike in one district of Rostov region alone, and their actions are blocking access to the ports for 90,000 tonnes of grain.”

According to the association, although there may only be 12,000 grain trucks registered in Russia’s Southern Federal District, up to 7,000 drivers, from various southern Russian regions may be involved in the strike. They aren’t organising open rallies or standing around holding placards: they just aren’t going to work. Indeed, people involved in the protest are afraid to talk to journalists and, with a few exceptions, try not to give their names. One obvious reason for this is a recent hike in fines for taking part in unsanctioned rallies: they can now reach 50,000 roubles (around £600) – a hard blow to middle-income families.

It’s paradoxical that the people who are holding the protest are, at the same time trying not to draw too much attention to themselves, for fear of punitive measures on the part of the authorities and the grain companies. The strike has been not only impromptu, but anonymous.

The activists talk about the need to create a proper grain hauliers trade union to protect their interests, but at the same time this strike began spontaneously and has no connection (at least at present) with the activities of the Organisation of Russian Truck Drivers (OPR), which was set up in 2017 after protests over the introduction of the “Platon” transport tax.

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The driver at the protest action of truckers opposing the Platon system in the parking lot of the Mega-Khimki Mall in the Moscow Region. Photo: Grigory Sysoev / RIA News. All rights reserved.

“We know about this strike in southern Russia, but we aren’t taking part,” says Mikhail Kurbatov, a member of OPR’s coordinating council. “In the first place, we have very few activists in the Southern and North Caucasian Federal Districts, and the people involved in this strike don’t yet want to join OPR. In the second, our goals don’t really coincide with what the strikers are after. The OPR aims to resolve all issues using legal means. We try to have input into the legal regulation of goods transport, whereas strikers just want a higher rate for their work. Our aims are more global, theirs are more local.”

“Over the course of this season, about two million tonnes of grain have been unloaded at Krasnodar regional ports alone”, says Alexander Korbut, the vice-president of the Russian Grain Union. “And the striking truckers have now blocked the delivery of another 80-100 thousand tonnes. But this is a mere drop in the ocean – less than five percent of the overall grain harvest. The figures tell the tale of the protest – it might make inconvenient and unpleasant reading for certain grain trading companies, but it has no effect on the general picture.”

The situation is also affected by drivers who are not taking part in the strike and are continuing to work at the old rates, overloading their trucks while trying not to draw attention to themselves. They still represent a majority of truckers (around 60%, according to both Gruzavtotrans and the Russian Grain Union).

Meanwhile, protesters visit strikebreakers at their homes and at grain terminals, persuading them to join the action. Some have agreed to join the strike; some haven’t. And like the strikers themselves, they are trying their hardest to avoid drawing attention to themselves – they are, after all having to break the law daily.

This strike is unlikely to end in victory for the truckers. It’s not just about the lack of solidarity, coordination or organising committee, but the low numbers. It appears that the grain export companies and Grain Union have not seen them as a serious risk, and are choosing to wait the situation out.

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