Politics, corruption, and abuse in Armenia’s supermarket cartels

December 2013: "Situated on a bed of lettuce and lemons on a counter in SAS supermarket’s meat department, the 12-kilogram, 90-centimeter-long crocodile, imported from the United States, weighs in at the staggering price of 380,000 drams, or $940; roughly twice the amount of the average monthly salary." (caption from Eurasianet "Armenia: Smoked Crocodile for New Year's Sparks Sharp-Toothed Debate" article by Marianna Grigoryan)

OC Media

With murky boundaries between the authorities and big supermarket chains in Armenia, their government linked owners enjoy a degree of impunity. This has and does lead to fear, intimidation, and exploitation of workers, and even voter fraud.

December 2013: “Situated on a bed of lettuce and lemons on a counter in SAS supermarket’s meat department, the 12-kilogram, 90-centimeter-long crocodile, imported from the United States, weighs in at the staggering price of 380,000 drams, or $940; roughly twice the amount of the average monthly salary.” (caption from Eurasianet “Armenia: Smoked Crocodile for New Year’s Sparks Sharp-Toothed Debate” article by Marianna Grigoryan)

Twenty-eight-year-old Mariam (not her real name) works as a cashier in a supermarket in Yereven. Mariam did not want the name of the store to be disclosed. Her monthly salary for a 48-hour work week is less than AMD 80,000 ($160). Employees of this supermarket chain get virtually no holiday, and often have to work double shifts.

Low pay and difficult conditions mean that there is a high turnover rate of cashiers, which is why Mariam sometimes has to work for two. In a number of supermarkets, cashiers must double as packers, packing items into customer’s bags.

Supermarkets usually hire young men for this job, but they also don’t tend to last long. The reason is the same — a very small salary. Packers are paid AMD 45,000–55,000 a month ($90–$110).

Mariam also intends to quit soon, but first she needs to find a new job. Winter is coming, and she will need to pay for utilities, which are constantly getting more expensive. The rise in prices for basic food products has also long become permanent, and her main expense is rent.

Mariam came to Yerevan from a village in a remote region of Armenia. She rents a one-room apartment in a residential area of the capital lives with a student friend, paying AMD 65,000 monthly ($130) between them.

Government linked supermarkets

There are several large supermarket chains in Armenia, the biggest of which is Yerevan City. Yerevan City belongs to Samvel Aleksanyan, a member of parliament from the ruling Republican Party who also owns the Kaiser supermarket chain.

The second biggest chain, Nor Zovq, belongs to Gagik Khachatryan. Khachatryan, otherwise known as ‘Superminister’, used to head both the Committee for State Revenues and the Ministry of Finance.

Then there is SAS, which belongs to another Republican party MP, Artak Sarkisyan.

Because so many of the biggest chains belong to businesspeople closely affiliated with the authorities, employees often struggle to protect their rights. None of the supermarket employees OC Media spoke with were willing to be photographed, or have their names printed.

The owners of other large chains, Evrika, Tsiran, and Krpak, are not public, and French chain Carrefour also operates in Yerevan.

Pressure and humiliation

In March 2017, in the wake of parliamentary elections, opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan openly accused ruling party MP Artak Sarkisyan of intimidating employees of his supermarket chain to gain votes.

‘Mr Sarkisyan, I have received multiple letters claiming you force your employees in supermarkets to change their registered addresses to electoral districts you are running in’, Pashinyan said. Sarkisyan did not respond to Pashinyan’s comments in parliament, but later denied the accusations to journalists.

Sarkisyan, who owns the SAS chain, won his seat for the Arabkir Community in Yerevan on 2 April for the Republican Party.

On 13 April, Armenian news site Hayastan24 released an audio recording of an SAS Group meeting in which an unidentified man demands employees bring lists of voters they will bring to the polling stations to vote for Sarkisyan.

The man openly insults employees failing to present lists of relatives and friends ready to vote for Sarkisyan. Moreover, the threats and mockery was deeply personal, including references to their physical appearance, and threatening them with dismissal if they failed to comply. Employees with the biggest lists of voters were promised a holiday in Paris.

A closed investigation

There was much speculation in the media as to the identity of the man in the video. Some claimed he was Sarkisyan’s brother and co-owner of the company, Aram Sarkisyan. Others claimed the meeting was conducted by deputy director of the company Samvel Manukyan, who is known to conduct ‘pre-election meetings with employees’.

Yervand Varosyan, a lawyer from the Chamber of Advocates of Armenia, a rights group, says there is clearly criminal intent present for ‘obstructing the free exercise of citizens’ electoral rights under the threat of material damage by a group of persons’.

Varosyan says it’s obvious the video also shows violations of the Labour Code and the principles of labour law.

After outrage on social media, the Prosecutor General’s Office referred the audio recording to the Special Investigation Service, which on 19 April opened a criminal investigation for ‘violation of ballot secrecy’, a criminal offence punishable by a fine or 3–5 years in prison.

But on 8 September the Special Investigation Service closed the case, claiming it could not determine that a crime had occurred.

Confiscated wages

Thirty-two-year-old Satenik (not her real name) works as a manager and sales consultant in a supermarket in the centre of Yerevan. Despite her impressive sounding title, the reality of her work is quite different. Satenik brings products in a cart from a warehouse to stack shelves for 12 hours a day. But even this is better than her previous job.

Prior to this, Satenik worked at another supermarket. There she was forced to pay AMD 120,000 ($235) from her own pocket after a shortage in the cash registers was discovered. She resigned quickly afterwards.

‘There are dishonest managers who hire cashiers knowing they have a shortage. It’s clear that I knew nothing about this. It was uncovered a month and a half later, and then this amount was deducted from my already miserly salary’, she says.

When she wanted to leave without paying, she was threatened with court. Fearing the consequences, she had to work another six weeks without pay. Despite resentment towards her former employers, fearing the possible consequences of doing so, she was unwilling to name the store.

None of the supermarkets mentioned in this article responded to OC Media’s requests for comment.

This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of FES.