Russia’s unpaid car workers of Togliatti

Natalia Sizova at home in Togliatti

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Natalia Sizova’s son’s bed is neatly made and she is now able to afford to look after him

In a sparsely furnished, single-room flat in Togliatti, Natalia Sizova counts the hours until she sees her five-year-old son again.

Six months ago she had so little food she decided he should go and live in a care centre across town.

Natalia is one of 2,000 people in this city, 1,000km (620 miles) east of Moscow, who work for car-parts maker AvtoVAZagregat. Their salaries have not been paid for months.

Togliatti is not alone. Hundreds of Russian companies, big and small, are withholding salaries.

The explanations may differ: mismanagement, bad economy or plain criminality. But for workers the end result is the same.

“Can you imagine no food at home? The child needed proper food and I just couldn’t provide it,” she says, holding back tears. Things were so dire she couldn’t scrape together the 100 roubles (£1; $1.50) to cover the bus fare to see him.

Media captionLiving on one month’s pay for a year

Natalia has been luckier than most, finding a job at another plant which makes car seats.

Now there is food in the fridge and she is able to take her son back.

But many of her former colleagues still have next to nothing to live on and tell of financial hardship:

  • One man used up his savings paying for his mortgage and now dodges debt collectors and lives on bread and water
  • One woman has had to take out payday loans at 2% daily interest just to buy food
  • Another woman had no money to pay for her father’s funeral

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Production at Togliatti came to a halt in June 2015 and few workers have been paid since

Togliatti is home to Russia’s best-known car, Lada.

For a quarter of a century AvtoVAZagregat supplied the seats, exhausts and other components to thousands of Lada brands all over Russia.

Then in June 2015 its management stopped production after an agreement broke down with Lada’s owners, VAZ.

The reason is unknown and AvtoVAZagregat’s director, Victor Kozlov, did not respond to a BBC request for comment.

But, in a rare interview with local media in February, he explained that the company had been unable to agree to VAZ’s demand for lower component prices.

Under Russian law, employees are entitled to two-thirds pay even if production has stopped, unless they are laid off.

After two months without salaries, AvtoVAZagregat workers complained and a criminal case against Mr Kozlov was launched. But to no effect.

Then, last autumn, Victor Kozlov and his brother Alexei, the main shareholders in AvtoVAZagregat, promised to pay all outstanding wages. Still nothing happened.

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Loan companies promise instant cash, and many of the Togliatti workers have had to take out payday loans

The company went bankrupt and only in March was money sent to the bailiffs managing its accounts. Half the workforce were able to get some of what they were owed.

At the end of April the governor of the local Samara region announced that another 30m of the 80m roubles owed to staff would be paid out.

Finally, on 5 May, some of that money reached Natalia Sizova and some 800 of her colleagues, from two of AvtoVAZagregat’s subsidiary companies. They had gone without pay for 11 months.

The workers say that, on average, two to three months’ worth of salary has been paid.

The regional prosecutor’s office told the BBC that the management would be forced to pay its debts, under threat of prosecution. The case concerning non-payments would still go ahead, they said.

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The closest the Togliatti workers have to a trade union is veteran colleague Antonina Larina, who collates information about the money owed by the head plant and two of its subsidiaries.

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Antonina Larina is fighting for her fellow workers to be paid

She keeps a list of regional and federal officials who have promised to find a solution. But, speaking last week, she was deeply sceptical that the regional governor, prosecutor or presidential representative could help.

Ms Larina pays a visit with colleagues to Togliatti’s council leader to tackle the problem of unpaid wages, but the meeting soon becomes heated.

“Nothing is being done, what have you brought us here for?” complains one man in his 50s.

“We’re doing all we can,” the council leader replies.

Another worker suggests blocking the main Togliatti-Moscow highway. The council leader objects, nervously.

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During his TV phone-in in April, President Putin helped workers demanding their salaries at a factory in the Far East

While the workers are keen to attract President Vladimir Putin’s attention, they also understand the risk of a backlash from authorities.

For them Mr Putin is the only hope.

Last month, during the president’s mammoth question-and-answer TV show, Direct line with Putin, a group of workers at a fish-processing factory in the Far East complained to the Russian leader about salaries not being paid. Their case was resolved with startling speed.

The workers of Togliatti also rang in, filled with hope. But to no avail. And even with partial payouts having started they do not expect to see all the debts settled soon.

Natalia Sizova says her child has suffered badly from being separated from his mother for six months and she dreams of filing for compensation.

But that looks like an impossible task.

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