Vostochny Workers Go on Hunger Strike Over Back Wages

Vladimir Putin reviews a map showing the plan for the Vostochny spaceport. (Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office)
Vladimir Putin reviews a map showing the plan for the Vostochny spaceport. (Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office)

Pity the poor workers at Vostochny.

They’re out there in the Russian Far East, in the middle of nowhere, trying to construct a massive new spaceport and an entire city to support it. There’s not enough people to do the work, the winter weather is horrible, and their employers have allegedly embezzled money while falling months behind on wage payments.

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin has decreed the first launch will take place from the new spaceport in December no matter. Deputy Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin — a great admirer of Josef Stalin — monitors the work via webcam in between regular visits. He recently threatened the rip the heads off anyone who steals funds or slows the project down.

Pressure? Oh, no pressure. What makes you say that?

It’s little wonder that workers are fed up. Two dozen went on a hunger strike, while another 100 workers also struck over back wages, according to Russian media.

Apparently, the strike was short lived. Rogozin has tweeted that he spoke by phone to the workers, who have agreed to end their hunger strike. The deputy prime minister said he would deal with the company officials responsible for failing to pay their wages.

[Update: Rogozin has fired the former head of Dalspetsstroy, Dmitry Savin, who is had earlier been demoted to deputy head of Dalspetsstroy,]

The project has continued to fall behind schedule. Recent photos of the construction site have raised questions about whether it will be possible to safely meet Putin’s end of the year deadline. Even if they do, it’s unclear what the impact will be on completing construction as planned in 2018.

Rogozin has taken personal control of the project. It’s his job to oversee the defense and space sectors. He recently fired the head of the general contractor over the delays. The previous holder of that position was arrested for alleged embezzlement.

It’s not entirely clear what Rogozin brings to the task other than his powerful position and his tendency to publicly berate people. Does he understand how to oversee a massive construction project? Or the complexities of launching rockets and running a new spaceport? Given the safety issues involved, the last think you want to do is to rush into a launch at an unfinished spaceport to satisfy some arbitrary deadline.

Then again, the deadline is from Putin. So, Rogozin’s going to do everything in his power to meet it. If he can’t, it won’t be for lack of effort in his part. He will be able to blame others.

Whether the deadline makes any sense is another matter. Russia has a long-term lease on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which ended up in newly independent Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia wants to reduce its dependence on the spaceport. However, there do not appear to be any serious threat to that agreement.

Completing a single launch from an unfinished spaceport by the end of the year doesn’t do much to reduce Russian dependence on Baikonur. The launch will probably divert resources from completing other parts of the spaceport and the supporting city. Overall progress could be slowed down.

Meanwhile, the project is short of workers. Reports indicate that students have been transported to the construction to assist with the work. There are reportedly plans to send another group there soon. Spring break Vostochny! How much fun is that, huh?

Perhaps that is a bit harsh. The students might be grateful for the work and pay that goes with it. (Providing their employees pay them on time.) One thing that seems clear is that students aren’t really a long-term solution to Vostochny’s labor problems.

Building a spaceport is difficult enough, especially in such a remote location. The project is further hampered by Russia’s culture of corruption, if the government’s claims about embezzlement are true. Officials have estimated that 20 percent of the money spent in the defense industry is lost through fraud and waste. It’s not known what the figures are in the construction industry, but it is a sector prone to corruption.

So, what will the rest of the year bring? Will they meet their December deadline? What will Putin do if his decree is not met? Will Rogozin actually tear someone’s head off?

It will be interesting to see what happens.