By Anna Malpas
2010-01-17 12:00 AM
The call center in northern Moscow employs almost 1,000 blind and visually impaired people, a bold experiment in a nation where people with disabilities struggle to find interesting jobs - or indeed any job at all.
With a rapid, confident sales pitch, one operator, Alexei Voronov, talked into his headset selling accountancy software.
This is the 25-year-old history graduate's first job, and he says he would be unlikely to find work more suited to his qualifications. "I doubt it very much. It's very difficult to find work in Russia," Voronov said. "People don't create the right conditions for the disabled."
Many of the center's staff used to work at a UPP, or educational-production facility, he added, referring to the Soviet-era factories that were set up to give disabled people a job.
"They were putting together hair curlers or plugs," Voronov told AFP.
"They earned 2,000 rubles (about 50 euros). The system is still working and people are sitting there. But they are all trying to leave."
Up to 14,000 blind people work in enterprises like that, according to the All-Russia Society of the Blind.
Last year, President Dmitry Medvedev said there were 13 million registered disabled people in Russia, of whom six million could work - but no more than 15 percent of those six million have jobs.
There are around 280,000 blind people in Russia, of whom just over 25,000 are employed, according to the All-Russia Society for the Blind.
Alexei Romanov, the deputy director of the call center and himself blind, said it was "the ideal workplace for people with disabilities." "The project is unique. You won't find anything similar in Europe."
He said discrimination was common. "In practice, companies always look for reasons to say no to disabled people."
The center opened last year with a grant from Moscow's city government and has two floors of office space full of computer equipment for 906 operators.
Some visually impaired workers are able to read huge type on screens, while completely blind people work use software that turns commands into speech.
Voronov is not the only over-qualified operator at the center.
Dmitry Kasatkin is doing a history PhD at Moscow State University but was glad to find his day job - helping customers having trouble putting money on their cell phones.
A tall, striking figure in satin shirt and dark glasses, Romanov studied history and worked as an academic before going to work at a telecoms company because he needed to earn more to support his three children.
He said that when he started as a phone operator himself, he was the only disabled employee out of 4,000 at his company.
The Moscow government provided a one-off subsidy for equipment at the call center, but the three companies involved have invested "immeasurably larger" sums, and must make it pay, Romanov stressed.
"The state won't give us another kopeck," he said.
The starting costs were massive: the equipment for each call station cost around US$21,000, staff said, and the center still needs to attract more clients to make a profit.
Ambitiously, the project will expand this summer with a second center in Moscow employing 1,500 more people, Romanov said.
Salaries at the center start at US$450 a month. "That means a person can start a family, have a baby. He can start living, go on holiday. He can live as an equal member of society," he added.
The salary is low by Moscow standards, even if people with disabilities are also eligible for state benefits.
Romanov called it "comparable" with pay at other call centers - although Moscow job advertisements indicate starting salaries of US$575 to US$670 - but he said his center had an edge because it can offer lower rates.