Hundreds of current and former employees of a troubled Armenian chemical giant began on Thursday a sit-in outside a key government building in Yerevan to demand more than one year’s worth of back pay.
They also want the Armenian government to help reactivate the Nairit plant that has largely stood idle since 2011.
The workers have pressed these demands during regular demonstrations that have been held in Yerevan for the last several months. Their representatives have repeatedly met with senior government officials, including Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian.
The workers received only a fraction of their back wages as a result. Abrahamian declared in March that the government is not responsible for the rest of the company’s wage debt estimated at around $15 million.
“Repay debt!” the workers chanted as they stood and sat on the ground outside Abrahamian’s office during a weekly cabinet meeting. “We are going to spend the next two days here to demand that they pay our wages and reactivate Nairit,” one of their leaders said through a megaphone.
The Yerevan-based plant, which employed several thousand people in Soviet times, specializes in the production of chloroprene rubber. It has struggled to remain afloat since the early 1990s, repeatedly changing foreign owners and operators in murky deals overseen by successive Armenian governments.
Nairit’s most recent parent company, Rhinoville Property Limited, is an obscure firm registered in a British tax haven. It has never disclosed the names of its owners.
Rhinoville pledged to breathe a new life into Nairit when it bought 90 percent of the Soviet-built plant in 2006 for a reported $40 million. It failed to honor that pledge, running up new and massive debts instead.
In particular, Nairit owes $107 million to the Moscow-based Inter-State Bank of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Last year the bank blocked Rhinoville’s commanding share in Nairit, citing its failure to repay the debt.
In 2013, Russia’s largest oil company, Rosneft, expressed readiness to buy the plant and invest $400 million in its reactivation. The deal subsequently fell through for still unknown reasons, however.
The government, which now effectively controls the plant, dealt a further blow to Nairit workers’ hopes when it laid off as many as 1,700 of them in January.
Energy Minister Yervand Zakharian revealed on Wednesday that a recent audit of the company’s books conducted by the World Bank has concluded that Nairit would remain a loss-making business if it were to be reactivated.
Zakharian insisted that the government has made no final decision on the plant’s future and may yet find a new owner for it. He also said the wage arrears should be cleared by the end of this year.
Leaders of the protesting workers were skeptical about these assurances. “This action is aimed at keeping up our fight. Do not believe them,” one of them told the crowd.
Another, female worker rejected the findings of the World Bank audit. “Our specialists believe that Nairit can be reactivated with $50-70 million in investments,” she said.