Hundreds of workers of a cement plant owned by businessman Gagik Tsarukian went on strike on Monday after its management announced plans to fire them, saying that the Armenian government will not protect it against much cheaper cement imports from Iran.
Citing mounting losses incurred by domestic cement manufacturers, the government decided earlier this year to impose hefty tariffs on those imports. A relevant government bill, portrayed as an anti-dumping measure, was discussed by an Armenian parliament committee on economic issues on Friday.
Tsarukian’s Multi Group holding company says that the bill was amended at the last minute to make sure that the tariffs do not apply to cement clinker, a nodular material developed before the final stage of cement production. Later on Friday, the group informed most of the 1,100 or so employees of the Ararat Tsement plant that they will be laid off within two months.
The workers responded by going on strike in protest. They also blocked a road leading to the plant located just outside Ararat, a small town 50 kilometers south of Yerevan.
“This is a strategically important plant,” one of them told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “The whole town of Ararat will get empty if it’s shut down.”
“We just want to keep working,” said another protester. He warned that he will have to leave Armenia if he loses his job.
Meeting with the workers, Multi Group’s chief executive, Sedrak Arustamian, insisted that the onus is on the government to save the plant from closure.
“As a result of Friday’s [parliament committee] meeting it was decided to remove clinker from the bill,” he said. “If they decided not to include clinker, then it’s better for us to also import clinker and provide the market [with cheaper cement.]”
Arustamian argued that Ararat Tsement would need a fraction of its current workforce to manufacture cement with Iranian clinker.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian gave no indication that his government is ready to meet Multi Group’s demand when he commented on the strike. He described it as a “problem between the employer and employees.”
The Ararat plant faced an uncertain future amid mounting tensions between Pashinian’s My Step alliance and Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the largest parliamentary opposition force. Earlier this month Tsarukian publicly criticized the government’s economic policies and said many government officials are incompetent.
This was followed by bitter recriminations traded by My Step and the BHK over a transgender activist’s bombshell speech delivered in the Armenian parliament. On April 9 Pashinian accused a senior BHK lawmaker of organizing a “political provocation” against the parliament majority loyal to him. Tsarukian and his associated rejected the accusation.
Tax officials raided a sprawling market and pressurized gas stations belonging to Tsarukian in the following days. BHK representatives suggested that the tax audits are politically motivated.
Pashinian on Monday seemed to dismiss speculation that he ordered a crackdown on Multi Group businesses in retaliation against Tsarukian’s public statements. “The government does not need to take away anything from anyone,” he told journalists. “The government doesn’t need dodgy political support because the government functions with a popular mandate and will do so as long as it has that mandate.”