The Workweek Custom-Made for Not Working


"By order of the Russian government, Jan. 5, Sunday, will be shifted to Jan. 3, Friday, and also June 15, Sunday, to June 13, Friday, in 1997. Thus, Russian people will have four days off for the New Year holiday."

This recent announcement by the Itar-Tass news agency is actually comprehensible to Russians, who have grown accustomed to a leadership that believes itself empowered to reverse the flow of rivers or rearrange the clock.

But as Russia inches toward inclusion in the global economy, some here have begun to question the contortions exercised on workweeks surrounding holidays and the cost of so many days when Russia excludes itself from international business.

What the Tass announcement means is that the traditional Sunday day off for government workers will be observed Friday, Jan. 3, and Sunday will be a workday. Both New Year's Day and Jan. 2 are official holidays, so swapping Friday for Sunday gives everyone four consecutive days off.

In reality, however, most workers will be off with pay for a whole week, because absenteeism draws little notice on days when no one is accustomed to businesses being open or the wheels of industry being in gear. And with another paid day off--Russian Orthodox Christmas--approaching Jan. 7, the temptation to stay away from the office is likely to overwhelm.

Alexander Y. Livshits, President Boris N. Yeltsin's chief economic advisor and newly named deputy prime minister, complained recently that there are too many days off in the government calendar and that the practice of exchanging real workdays for Sundays is illogical and expensive.

Not only do government factories go through the motions of production, but the fledgling stock and currency markets also open for trading on those Sundays. However, with few foreign buyers even aware that Moscow is working, trading is light.

Activity at industrial enterprises is hardly brisker.

"It doesn't make sense to have people work on Sundays when they aren't used to it. This is time that is simply wasted," said Mikhail Berger, an economic analyst for the newspaper Izvestia.


While the workweek wiggling is mandatory only for government enterprises, the liberties taken with the calendar end up affecting just about all business. Transportation is decimated. Even private businesses, bakeries and convenience stores succumb to the tide of tradition that discourages commerce as a violation of the official edict to rest.

"Mainly, it's just very irritating," said Marc Champion, editor of the English-language daily Moscow Times, which can publish only when the government's printing monopoly agrees it is a workday. "It means we can't adhere to our normal schedule, which readers are used to and we prefer to stick to. Everything gets thrown completely out of whack."

The official shutdowns are compounded by the emergence of several new holidays in the post-Soviet era, although none of the Communist celebrations has been canceled. New Year's Day, Women's Day, May Day, Victory Day and Revolution Day are now joined by Jan. 2 (just to lengthen the year's most important break), Orthodox Christmas, Independence Day and Constitution Day.

Next year's Independence Day holiday falls on Thursday, June 12, and will be made into a three-day weekend by furloughing workers on Friday and calling them back Sunday to compensate. That payback practice was carried to an extreme earlier this month when Russians observed Constitution Day on Thursday, Dec. 12, then had Friday off to make it a weekend, only to have to come to work Saturday and Sunday--the former to make up for Friday and the latter for an unscheduled day off called by the government in July.

The Western concept of taking vacation days to round out a holiday break has yet to dawn on Russians, who continue the Soviet-era practice of spending their annual leave in one long stretch in midsummer. The Economics Ministry has also lambasted the consequences of that practice, which sees 30% of the work force off at any given time in July and August.

"You can't do business here when the government says it's a holiday. There's no one around to talk to. You just have to leave the country, or you'll drive yourself crazy," said Greg Oztemel, president of the Satra Group trading company, who headed to Connecticut this week for a government-imposed vacation.

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