An Armenian pressure group campaigning against a highly unpopular pension reform on Wednesday accused the government of forcing public sector employees not to opt out of a new national retirement plan which is being introduced by it.
Representatives of the Dem Em (I’m Against) movement said that many disgruntled young workers covered by the reform are reluctant to refuse sizable deductions from their wages for fear of losing their jobs.
The reform, which the government began enforcing in January, requires Armenians born after 1973 to save much of their future retirement benefits by transferring sums equivalent to 5 percent of their gross wages to private pension funds. Armenia’s Constitutional Court declared this provision unconstitutional in April after months of angry street protests staged by Dem Em and backed by leading opposition forces.
The government responded to the court ruling by pushing through the parliament last month a bill that makes the reform optional for the workers aged 40 and younger. They can now refuse to be covered by the new pension system by lodging corresponding written requests with their employers.
Very few of those workers employed in the public sector have done that so far, a fact which Dem Em leaders attribute to strong pressure from their bosses acting on government orders. According to Meri Khachatrian, a lawyer affiliated with the group, many schoolteachers, medics and civil servants fear that they will be fired in case of acting against the government’s wishes.
Khachatrian said Dem Em has suggested that they submit collective applications to their employers. “But that too is not proving to be a solution because the whole state apparatus has been mobilized,” she said.
Employees interviewed by told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on the condition of anonymity confirmed this. “People are too scared to be the first to apply [for an exemption,]” said one lecturer of the State Construction and Architectural University. “I just don’t know anyone willing to have at least 5 percent of their salaries withheld.”
Anahit Khechumian, the principal of Yerevan’s Yeghishe Charents Secondary School, said none of her teachers has asked to be exempted from the new retirement plan. “They probably care about their secure retirement,” Khechumian said. She denied exerting pressure on them.
Some of the few workers choosing to opt out of the reform are facing another challenge: their written applications are not necessarily accepted by their bosses. “They withheld money from my [May] salary despite my application,” said Shushan Minasian, a young teacher at a rural school in the Gegharkunik province. Minasian said the school administration told her that it needs additional “clarifications” from the government before allowing her not to make extra social security contributions.
Some schoolteachers in Yerevan privately claim that the municipal authorities have instructed the school administrations not to accept exemption requests from their staff. Both the Yerevan Mayor’s Office and Education Minister Armen Ashotian have denied such claims.
Dem Em’s Khachatrian complained that the pension bill that took effect on May 30 envisages no sanctions against employers refusing to quickly process exemption applications. She said only “public pressure” can force the authorities to let the affected Armenians freely make a pension choice.