Russian owner of Armenian railway replaces local railway workers with Russian citizens
Workers at the railway depot in Gyumri, the second-largest city in Armenia, turned to the National Security Service, the prosecutor’s office and the police after coming to work and finding that several conductors invited from Russia had taken their place.
South Caucasus Railway is a wholly owned subsidiary of Russian Railways. In the beginning of 2008, Armenia signed a concession agreement which transferred the state-owned joint-stock company Armenian Railway over to Russian Railways for the next 30 years.
A concession agreement calls for the complete reconstruction of a state-owned enterprise at the expense of the investor. The investing company gets the opportunity to run the business and earn income by paying taxes to the state.
The Armenian railway workers were not informed in advance that they would be laid off from their jobs. And their Russian colleagues, according to local conductors, started working almost immediately after arriving in Armenia. They did not pass the probationary period and did not even familiarize themselves with equipment or space.
What happened in detail
According to the Armenian online publication “Haykakan Zhamanak” (Armenian time), the railway workers came to work as usual on the morning of November 19. But it turned out that the Russian conductors were already there working. Armenian railway workers were simply not allowed to run the trains.
“They told our guys: you’ll be our reserve forces, but the trains will be run by Russians. We got absolutely no notice. I have a shift right now, but I went in and looked at the schedule, and across from my name, the words “on unpaid leave” are written. But they never told me why. They sent me “on leave,” and replaced me with some Russian,” reported one of the Armenian conductors.
Local workers believe that the actions of the Russian company are threat to Armenian national security. In their letter sent to various authorities, they implored them to verify the identity of all the Russian conductors, as well as their right to operate trains in Armenia.
“They called it an ‘exchange of experience’ and put the Russians in our place. They started work almost immediately after getting off the plane. They are not familiar with the trains, the route—any of it,” said one of the conductors.
Incidentally, two trains operated by Russian conductors have already been removed from service. According to locals, this happened precisely because the Russian specialists are not trained to drive such trains.
Possible explanations, according to conductors
The Armenian railroad workers are sure that this “replacement” happened because of their three-day strike, which was held in October. During this strike, they demanded a 30 percent increase in their salaries.
“We put them in an uncomfortable situation, so to say, and now they are trying to respond. We asked why they are doing this, and they said that it was a good thing,” said one of the conductors to a journalist from Haykakan Zhamanak.
Due to the strike, the trains were completely out of operation from October 22nd-27th, including those transporting oil products and grain. These are big exports in Armenia, and supply disruptions could lead to serious fines. Therefore, on the third day of the strike, the railway leadership met with the striking railway workers and worked towards a compromise.
After the meeting, South Caucasus Railways released a statement. It said that the volume of freight and passenger traffic for the nine months of 2019 has increased significantly, and this allows drivers to raise salaries for conductors by an average of 19 percent.
They also decided to develop legislature outlining a 10 percent wage indexation for all employees starting on November 1, 2019.
The same statement stipulated that the salaries of drivers in 2019 had already increased and amounted to 354 thousand drams [about $ 740]. And the ratio of wages of locomotive drivers to the average wage in Armenia is 198.6 percent, that is, railway workers are paid almost twice as much.
For now, railway workers will continue to work according to their schedules. They have not yet received any warning that they are suspended.
Engineers are indignant about the fact that they were given no explanation as to why they were suspended from work. They even threaten to take extreme measures—to sit on the railroad tracks with their families and children, so as not to allow Russian conductors to use these routes.
Tense relations with the Russian company
A criminal case has been launched against the South Caucasian Railways Company. Investigations were conducted on suspicion of tax evasion were at the company’s office in August this year. The Investigative Committee of Armenia has also opened a criminal case against the former deputy minister of transport for allegedly hiding violations committed by the SCRC.
The Investigative Committee will continue to audit the company over the next 10 years. They will be paying particular attention to the fruitfulness of investments promised under the contract. The total investment promised by the company is $ 572 million.
All this may have played a role in the current situation. There are still no official announcements or explanations—neither from the railway company, nor from the Armenian authorities.