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A Factory in Russia

Peter visits Russia to investigate the reality of a rumour he heard during the Cold War - of factories with almost full employment for the visually impaired.

During the Cold War, Peter White heard a fascinating rumour from Russia - that there were factories which employed the visually impaired almost exclusively. But today, initiatives offering protected employment for blind people are viewed as suspect. Society has moved toward integration and segregating workers is seen as unfashionable. But in Russia, one of the electronics factories Peter heard about is still going strong, and Peter is about to go on a special visit...
Presented by Peter White
Produced by Sue Mitchell.

Available now

20 minutes

In Touch Transcript: 22-05-2018

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

 

IN TOUCH – A Factory in Russia

 

TX:  22.05.2018  2040-2100

 

PRESENTER:          PETER WHITE

PRODUCER:            SUE MITCHELL

 

White

Good evening.  The idea of protected employment for blind and partially sighted people has rather struggled to survive in the current UK.  Modern ideas of integration and inclusion have made it unfashionable.  And although some of what we used to call sheltered workshops do still operate with varying degrees of success there’s still a sense that open rather than sheltered employment is the right way to do things.  But I’ve always been fascinated by the stories that used to circulate in Britain in the days of Soviet Russia and communism of a system of something resembling full sheltered employment amongst blind people in Russia’s workshops.

 

So, as I’m here in Moscow for another project I asked to come and see one of the city’s current factories which still exist to find out just how true those stories were and how these workshops are surviving in the post-‘90s Russia of full-on capitalism.

 

So, I’m here at Cultsavo Electro [phon.], which, as its name suggests, makes electronic equipment and it’s one of a number of factories still run by VOS, or the All Russia Association of the Blind and they run a range of services for blind people.  I’m just going up to see Valerie Alexandrovic [phon.], he’s director of the factory, to find out how true were those stories of full employment for blind people and just how this current factory is doing now.

 

Good morning.  Hello.  Peter.

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

First of all, I would like to tell you that it is a pleasure for me to welcome you here…

 

White

Oh right, oh that looks like an old-fashioned light switch.  Yeah, right.

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

Socket and switch, double.

 

White

I’ve just been looking at all the various products – they’re on the wall – there are the switches, there are double switches.  Oh, I see, so that’s a turn switch as opposed to an up and down switch.

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

This is for the industry.

 

White

Some of them are like rocker switches, some of them turn…

 

We always used to have the impression in Britain before the regime change, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, that Russia had something almost approaching full employment for blind people and that it was in these workshops.  My first question is – was that really true?

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

During the Soviet Union times everything was planned and our factories were included in the register of production and the products were manufactured according to the plan and it was guaranteed that all the ready-made products would be sold because it was organised.  There was no competition and all the products was guaranteed to be sold at the market.

 

All the people are blind people who wanted to work, who wanted to be employed were employed.  We did not pay any taxes.  That is why their salary was quite high at that time.

 

White

So, when the regime collapsed, what happened?

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

The factories of the All Russia Association of the Blind began to work as ordinary factories.  They had to sell their products without the help from the side of the state.  And live on the money they earned themselves.

 

White

That must have been a huge culture shock.

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

Yes, absolutely.  And of course, as a result the number of workstations or workplaces reduced greatly.  And besides many of the products from abroad appeared on the market, so our factories had to compete not only with the Russian factories but also with the products imported.

 

White

So, what was the effect, how many lost their jobs?

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

It is difficult for me to tell about the country on the whole but if I take this only factory the number of the workers reduced twice – half – twice.

 

White

Half the number.

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

But there are also positive factors in this.  Because of the fact that a lot of imported products came to our market – from Germany, from Poland, from other countries – we had to make the quality of our products better.

 

These are press forms, they’re very important, they’re [indistinct word] part of production.  With their help the plastic – all other plastic electrical devices are made.

 

White

Right, Valerie has just poured something into my hand.  What is that?

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

The raw material – plastic – from which the switches are made.

 

White

So, it’s just granular there, tiny bits of plastic that you poured into my hand here.  And that’s what goes to make up the final products – yes?

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

Yes.

 

White

So, pour that back in there.

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

These final products. 

 

Three hundred and thirty people are employed here and 187 of them are visually impaired.

 

White

A lot of the blind people here – what they are doing is they’re working with their hands, they’re working manually.  Aren’t you competing in this field with production methods which are automatic?

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

The assemble of electrical appliances in all the world is done manually – 95% manual work, this is manual work.  Our main competitor is Schneider Electric Company – 87% of their work is done manually.

 

White

So, how well are blind people able to compete in this field?

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

In order for a blind person to be competitive there are a lot of adaptations made by us and we’ll show these adaptations in the workshop.  And these adaptations help not only blind people but also other disabilities – the result of cerebral palsy, for deaf people – to increase their productivity and to be competitive with sighted workers.

 

This person is totally blind and he is one of the best chess players.

 

White

Oh right.

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

Alexander, his name is Alexander.

 

White

Okay.  Can I shake hands?  Alexander, my name is Peter, can you explain to me what you’re doing here, the work that you’re doing?

 

Alexander [through translator]

I’m assembling sockets.  Starting from the very beginning, from this spare part and the final product is this one.

 

White

Which looks really very sophisticated.

 

Alexander [through translator]

So, the final result will be seen when it is packed.

 

White

How long does the process take you?

 

Alexander [through translator]

This socket is rather complicated, a lot of spare parts, and it takes me usually one minute and a half to assemble.  Of course, a sighted person would assemble it quicker because sometimes I take the spare part and it is not even and I notice it at a later stage and a sighted person would notice it at once with his eyes.

 

I want to tell you that we have a special adaptation, this metal part, to direct my work, this one – he demonstrates.  So, this is adaptation to fit exactly in the holes.

 

White

Oh, I see.  A plug fits into another plug.  I should explain – Alexander is working while he’s talking to me and he’s fitting various things into a circuit board.  I’m trying to work out what this – what the adaptation that he’s shown me actually does but – how many of these would you do in a day Alexander?

 

Alexander [through translator]

Sometimes 250 and sometimes 400.  He assembles different sockets.

 

White

This is hot.  This is warm.

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

It was done right now.

 

White

Has that just been made?

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

Yes.

 

White

This is a socket – yes?  A socket with a hole and it’s hot off the presses.

 

How much of a struggle was it, Valerie, when the regime changed to keep these factories going?

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

Extremely difficult.  For instance, should I be suggested to repeat it for the second time I would think a lot.

 

White

You wouldn’t want to go through that again?

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

No, no I wouldn’t.

 

White

What happened to the blind people who lost their jobs at that time?

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

The government of Moscow took measures too retain jobs for blind people and for example they created call centres for blind people.

 

White

Ah yes.

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

The partially sighted they…

 

White

So, this is the way in which they’ve made the factory itself accessible because on the top of this bannister there are four – I suppose they’re ball bearings – they’re in a square but it’s the number of ball bearings that tell you what the floor is, so there are four here, so we’re on the fourth floor going down.

 

This is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen here.  I climb stairs at the BBC, I never know which floor I’m on.  I think they should introduce this idea.

 

I’m Peter.

 

Tatiana [through translator]

My name is Tatiana.

 

White

Okay, can I ask you what you’re doing here at the moment?

 

Tatiana [through translator]

I am doing spare parts for the socket with two places.  So, I’m taking one part the bases, then another part the cover and the screws.

 

White

How long have you worked here?

 

Tatiana [through translator]

Forty years.

 

White

Really?

 

Tatiana [through translator]

Forty.

 

White

That’s a long time.

 

So, you were here in the old days when communism was around?

 

Tatiana [through translator]

I came in 1978.

 

White

How different was it then?

 

Tatiana [through translator]

So, I worked as I used to work and the only change is when the new products appear.  Of course, they did lose many worker places in 1990s, it was hard with the job but we tried to survive.

 

White

Were you worried at the time?

 

Tatiana [through translator]

Of course, I worried a lot because all of us had families and we needed money.

 

White

Do you think this kind of factory can continue to exist in modern Russia and a world economy that is increasingly competitive?

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

It’s a very complicated issue.  Everything will depend on people who will deal with this and on their ability to tell about this problem to the government.  There is no difference between the products made by sighted people or people with disabilities, the products – the quality of the products is the same.

 

White

Valerie Alexandrovic, thank you very much.

 

We’ve been joined by Helen, who is also visually impaired and is a lawyer.  I like…

 

Helen

… not to be, what is the question.

 

White

That’s very good, can you do anymore?

 

I just wanted to ask what kind of legal work Helen does for the factory?

 

Helen [through translator]

All internal documents – court cases.

 

White

And where did you study?

 

Helen [through translator]

University – Moscow.  I’m absolutely sure that the future of this factory will be bright because we get support from the government and of course people with disabilities need additional attention from the governmental bodies and we’re sure they should deal with this issue in the future and they will do it.  And we hope for the better.

 

White

Do you think this kind of supported workplace is still a viable way to give employment to blind people?

 

Helen [through translator]

We do not ask the government to support us completely, we need some – just additional support because I am sure that our products are rather competitive on the market.  We own ourselves and we will be competitive.  If, for instance, I would be employed at other factories there would be no conditions for me to work because there are special conditions created for me since I am visually impaired, especially here and I’m very grateful.  And it is important that here sighted people and visual and impaired people work together because it is a great stimulus for them to adaptate [sic].

 

White

What are the adaptations that are most helpful to you, most valuable?

 

Helen [through translator]

This is the permission for me to come later for instance.  Secondly, I choose the workplace which is more convenient for me and everyone understands my problems with sight and when they arise they are very tolerant and patiently waiting for me to overcome.  We have a local VOS organisation which can give me some technical means, which make my work simpler.

 

White

Sergei Vanchin [phon.] who works for the All Russia Organisation for Blind People told me what had happened to some of them.

 

Vanchin [through translator]

It was just a terrible time, crazy time – he says – crazy time.  A lot of criminals appeared, criminal – and a few laws.  It was difficult and is difficult to compete in the open market.  It remains – still remains for today.

 

White

Did some factories close as a result of that?

 

Vanchin [through translator]

Yes, and our factories appeared to be in the system without any benefits.  Employing of blind workers is the most efficient way of giving work – jobs for blind people.

 

White

Were there other effects on blind people when the big political changes took place in the early ‘90s?

 

Vanchin [through translator]

I think that life before the beginning of the ‘90s was more organised in general.  And of course, when everything is pre-planned or planned or organised it is easier for blind people.  And in ‘90s as well as now there is a kind of chaos.

 

White

Chaos.

 

Vanchin [through translator]
Chaos, yes.  And of course, in chaos it is difficult for blind people to live in chaos.

 

White

So, what they’re doing here they’re pressing the plastic into a mould to make a light fitting and Valerie has just handed me one, which is also still steaming hot.  And yeah these are more of those double sockets.  Just been pressed into a mould.

 

Do you think you can make things here as economically when you’re employing people who are inevitably slower?

 

Alexandrovic [through translator]

The point of absence of losses is 22 million rubels for this factory.  If we succeed this 22 million rubels per month for this factory it is okay, if it is less it is not profitable.  But there are measures of support in this factory.  For example, all these factories belong to the All Russia Association of the Blind, this is their property.  And the government of Moscow, though it is not so much interested in our factories, still they support us – they give us financial assistance to keep our factory.  So, all these measures taken together allow us to survive.  And I would like to stress the fact that we have some workers whose productivity is very low but we still keep these workers, we give them employment and during their five years we fired no one, we keep all of them.   If it were an ordinary factory these workers would be fired of course.

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