Armenia: Out With the Old

out with the oldYEREVAN, Armenia | Several women sit in a lecture room in Yerevan State University’s biology department. In angry voices loud enough to be heard down the corridor, they recount their recent firing by the university.

“If I was fired because there is not enough work in our department for all the lab workers, or if a younger worker was about to be hired instead of me, I would leave [willingly], because I receive a [government] pension,” says Amalya, who, like the rest of the dismissed workers, asked to be referred to by a pseudonym for this article.

“I’ve done this job for 42 years. During the dark and cold years [the Armenian depression of the early 1990s] I defended the honor of the university, and I’m sorry to be leaving it now under this kind of governance.”

The women are being dismissed in a purge of 65 laboratory workers age 65 or older. They have spent years as assistants in the university’s chemistry, biology, and physics labs, but they are now under orders from the rector to leave the university before the next school year.

The university says it’s trying to trim down a staff that became bloated during communism. Still, some of the fired workers will be replaced, and the university rector says he wants the empty jobs to go to young people, in a country where there are nearly three times more young people than senior citizens.

The older workers bitterly resent being shown the door. Back in the biology lab, they all talk at once. “The most offensive thing is the way they’re firing us. I wish they would give us the slightest bit of respect. I wish they would gather us and thank us for working 40 or more years,” says Anna, 67.

“But what are they saying? ‘Go away.’ … They just gave us the sack,” Amalya says.

Karine, who has worked in a university lab for 44 years, says, “People who come to work only for the paycheck haven’t been fired, but we work all day long and we’re the ones who are being fired. For example, there are seven workers in our laboratory but only four of them work.”

Amalya adds, “They haven’t even asked the deans of the departments who should be fired, who the valuable workers are and who aren’t. They didn’t even bother to find out.”

“If you are 65, you should leave!”

University rector Aram Simonyan defends the wholesale firings as legal. “It is my right as an employer to expel lab workers who receive retirement pensions. This has been done within the framewtablork of civil and labor codes,” Simonyan says.

He said he did not review employees’ performance in an attempt to be evenhanded. “If I decided to carry out a review, and if I made an exception and decided that the qualification of this worker is higher than another worker who is being fired, it wouldn’t be fair. I think I should be fair to everyone. I can’t choose one worker over another. … The main condition here is age; if you are 65, you should leave.”

The university conducts regular performance appraisals of professors but not of lab workers, and the rector acknowledged that the across-the-board firings are likely to mean that some good workers will be dismissed.

National labor law is on Simonyan’s side. It gives an employer the right to cancel contracts with workers based on the national retirement age, which is 61 for women and 65 for men.

University trade union president Armen Avetisyan says his organization can be of little help to the workers, as neither the law nor the university’s contract with the union has been violated.

Avetisyan has met with the workers. He says he told them they are raising moral issues that the law does not address. “The labor code does not say that if a person receives a pension you must weigh moral issues before firing them. If it did, then I would fight this. But I don’t have a leg to stand on.”

The workers have appealed to President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian, the Education Ministry, the country’s ombudsman, and other officials and institutions.

In response, the Education Ministry asked Simonyan to explain the dismissals. He responded that the law gives him the right. “This is a legal decision and we can’t do anything,” ministry spokesman Artur Baghdasaryan said.

Ombudsman Armen Harutyunyan has declined to take up the matter, saying he cannot consider cases that do not violate human rights or basic liberties.

In a letter to the women, however, he advised them that the same law that bars him from hearing the case mentions the courts as a possible remedy instead. The women considered this option but have since ruled it out.

But if they must go, they say, then so should older members of the teaching staff.

“Why should associate professors or professors stop working only at 70 or 75 and laboratory assistants at 65? When I teach a professor’s class by myself, the students don’t ask how old I am,” Anna says. “Age should not be the only criterion, and the law should apply not only to laboratory assistants but also to professors.”

To some extent, the rector agrees. He admits that the university has “many unqualified professors” but says he cannot fire them.

One-quarter of the university’s 1,225-strong teaching staff is under age 40. Nearly 9 percent of the staff is 70 and older.

“If I had replacements, I would fire the associate professors from [age] 70 and the professors from 75, but I don’t have replacements, that’s why they work half time,” Simonyan says. “For now I have to keep these professors, and I think I should use this time … to prepare replacements. Getting rid of unqualified workers isn’t easy but I can’t just dismiss the whole staff of professors, like I did with laboratory workers.”

Old and Bloated

But if lab workers are easy to replace, Simonyan says that is not the only reason they were let go.

“This is being done because [during the Soviet years], they loaded the laboratory staff but now the university can’t carry the heavy load of lab staff.”

Of the 456 laboratory assistants who work at the university, the rector estimates that only 250 or 300 are necessary. “This is a state institution; we can’t keep this number of laboratory staff with our budget.” Simonyan said by firing the older workers, he can give a 17 percent raise to the remaining workers. “That’s better than having a lot of lab assistants who get low salaries,” he says, calling the dismissals a decision of the head and not the heart.

The rector said keeping so many older workers in the labs has closed off opportunities for younger people.

“A lab worker should be young, someone who has just graduated, and then he or she can become a professor step by step. But we have blocked their path; the old people have blocked young peoples’ path. They don’t allow young people to come in. The generational change is not taking place.”

On average, about 100 people graduate from each of the affected departments each year.

Armenia’s unemployment rate stands at just over 7 percent, but the rate for those ages 16 to 30 is significantly lower, at 2 percent. Official figures are notoriously sketchy in Armenia, however, and Yerevan State University economist Tatoul Manaseryan says youth unemployment is a much bigger problem than those numbers suggest.

“The real figure for youth unemployment in Armenia is 10 times higher. Official numbers don’t show this because not everybody gets the status of an unemployed person in Armenia and some young people even don’t apply for this status. They think it kind of shameful,” Manaseryan said.

Those aged 16 to 30 made up about one-fourth of Armenia’s population in the 2001 census, compared to just under 9 percent for those aged 65 to 80. It is a significantly younger population than in the European Union, where those 15 to 29 made up 19 percent of the population and those 65 and older accounted for 17 percent in 2005.

But those numbers, and their implications, carry little weight with the dismissed workers, some of whom say they are not impressed by their younger counterparts.

“There’s a young woman working in my lab. I tell her to stand by my side and learn, and she says, ‘No, I have to finish my dissertation so I won’t be expelled,’ ” Amalya says.

“They tell us new teams will work, but I don’t think young people will work for 42,000 drams [90 euros]” per month, Marine interrupts her.

The average monthly pension in Armenia is 10,854 drams, about 23 euros, but these women are likely to take home more, about 35 euros, after 40 years of working, according to the state pension fund.

Other higher education institutions in Armenia have faced a similar problem. Several years ago Yerevan Medical University dismissed its older workers and gave them university pensions, to supplement what retirees get from the government. But Simonyan says his university doesn’t have the means to do that.

“If the dismissed worker is alone or lives in poor conditions we will help her through the trade union, but it won’t be permanent.”


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