Coronavirus Outbreak at Novatek Construction Site in Murmansk Region

Worker Tells of 1,900 Infected Construction Workers at Novatek Site
According to him, work team got hold of computer file containing actual numbers of infected and test results
Artyom Alexandrov
NEWS.ru
April 28, 2020

Workers employed by contractors Velesstroy Montazh at a Novatek construction site in Murmansk Region have refused to report for their shifts due to a coronavirus outbreak in the workers’ dormitories that management has preferred to ignore. NEWS.ru has talked to workers who allege that the results of their tests for the virus have been withheld from them, and both healthy and sick workers have been encouraged to work. To top it all off, the employees fear they won’t be paid.

Novatek’s Artic LNG 2 project involves the construction of a facility for the production of liquefied natural gas on the Gyda Peninsula in the Gulf of Ob. To implement the project, a center for the construction of large-capacity offshore facilities, which the local press has dubbed the “factory of factories,” is being erected near Belokamenka in Kola Bay in Murmansk Region. The agree to build the construction center was signed in 2015. Such a a large project has not been undertaken since Soviet times.

NOVATEK

Reports of a coronavirus outbreak at the construction site started appearing in the media and social networks in mid-April, and since then the situation has become more alarming. However, neither Novatek nor local authorities believed that work should be stopped. Construction workers were tested for the virus, but officially there was not talk of a serious outbreak.

Work has been halted, however, by a “grassroots initiative.” A construction worker named Ilya told NEWS.ru that everything changed dramatically after workers got hold of an Excel file in which management had allegedly recorded the real number of cases and actual test results.

“We were not informed of the test results. In fact, until now, almost all of us know them only thanks to the documents that surfaced. It turned out we have a huge number of cases in every house where workers live. There are 205 people in my dorm and 171 infected people. There are a total of 4,000 workers, and 1,900 have been infected,” said Ilya.

According to the crisis center in Murmansk, 867 people at the construction site were confirmed to have the coronavirus. However, the other figures for the numbers of infected were not a big surprise to the workers since many of them have long since complained of symptoms of COVID-19, including fever and loss of smell. But, as was mentioned above, despite the fact they submitted to tests in good faith, they were not told the results. Despite massive health problems among their employees, construction site management has pretended that everything is fine.

“I have gone to the GP four days in a row and still haven’t received any information. If you say you’re not feeling well, they don’t really treat you. They only hand out anti-fever medicine. Some of the guys have pneumonia, however, but there are no antibiotics. Management has told us to pack up and travel to the hospital if we want. The infectious disease hospital is located 128 kilometers from here, in Monchegorsk. And yet they’re also scaring us by saying that things are so bad there, we’d better stay here,” said Dmitry, another construction worker.

Several nurse practitioners work at the site, but according to the workers, they are not equipped to fight the epidemic. There is also an Emergencies Ministry mobile hospital near the site where thirty-nine of the most severely ill patients have been taken, as well as to the Murmansk Regional Hospital. Large-scale hospitalization of the workers has not occurred, however. For some reason, construction site management does not even want to separate healthy workers from sick workers in the dorms.

“The dorms haven’t even been disinfected. No one has been moved, although the infrastructure permits it. People could be grouped together, after all. There are one to three healthy people in each room, and they could be housed in one place, but no,” Dmitry said.

On April 11, Andrei Chibis, the region’s governor, publicly stated that “all measures for quarantining, separating, and strictly monitoring” the construction site had been implemented. Chibis later said that the COVID-19 outbreak had been localized with quarantine measures, the work site had been isolated, and new workers were not being transported to the facility.  Despite what Chibis said, however, according to Ilya, he was first tested for the coronavirus only on April 22, while many other workers were tested even later.

Consequently, the builders worked until April 17, after which they had refused to go to work.

“Nearly everyone has stopped working, except those who keep the dorm facility running—food suppliers, canteen workers, sewage cleaners, and so on. However, management has recently been threatening to put everyone back to work, sick and healthy alike. The foremen have been insisting we go to work, especially the machine operators. And yet they suggest we go back to work without any preferential treatment or incentives whatsoever. But how can we work when we’re sick? This is now even prohibited by law,” said Ilya.

Initially, the construction workers were told that they were in “self-quarantine,” and they would be paid in full. Later, there was talk they could switch to sick leave, but their wages would be docked accordingly. However, this was all talk, as no orders were issued. The workers are afraid that the downtime could be deducted from their wages. The situation should be clarified when they are paid an advance for the current month on April 30, while their salaries will be paid on May 15. At the same time, there have been no threats of penalties. Nor do the workers complain of a deterioration of living conditions—they are being fed and accommodated as before.

Neither the Murmansk Region governor’s office nor Velesstroy Montazh or Novatek responded to our requests for information before press time.

On April 28, the prosecutor’s office of Yakutia’s Lensk District launched a probe into whether the rights of rotational workers at Gazprom’s Chayanda field had been violated. The probe was prompted by the protests that several hundred rotational workers staged over unacceptable working conditions. Video footage of the uprising was posted online. Workers complain that management does not care about their health and safety during the pandemic. More than ten thousand people are employed at the field. Just as in Murmansk Region, disaffected workers alleged that the results of their COVID-19 tests had been withheld from them.

Thanks to Sergei Vilkov for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Novatek and NEWS.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader. See all of my coronavirus coverage here.

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