“I stake my future with the working class,” boasted Hugo Chavez, as he set out his plans to transform the Venezuelan economy.
The reality has turned out to be very different. An astonishing story recently came to light: hundreds of laid-off Venezuelan workers are still turning up to work in order to protect their workplace from looters. The factory where they worked, owned by the Irish company Smurfit, had been seized on spurious grounds by the Maduro regime. The workers are desperate, for anyone – other than the regime – to restart operations.
“Help, we need a boss here. We’re desperate,” said Ramón Mendoza, who has been a forestry division worker for 17 years. “We’re so scared because we now know that all the government does is destroy everything, every business.”
The closure of Smurfit’s packaging plant not only made 1,600 workers unemployed but also damaged other companies, who now lack vital materials. According to Carlos Rodriguez a union leader at Colgate Palmolive, production at one its plants has been halted because of an absence of boxes to package soaps and detergents.
The 1,600 former employees of Smurfit have lost more than their jobs. Smurfit had been providing interest-free loans for their houses and free education for their children. Smurfit used to finance the Agricultural Technical School in nearby Acarigua, where 200 children in extreme poverty could receive an education, accommodation and hot meals. That school has now closed, and the teachers are unemployed. According to Maria Vielma, the school’s psychologist, “This used to be a family. I just don’t have words right now. We have a government that is dedicated to destroying, not constructing.”
That feeling of betrayal has spread throughout all sectors of the economy. After the destruction of the Venezuelan cement industry under state ownership, the general secretary of the cement workers’ union said this to a rally of protesting cement workers:
“[W]hen the government took control of the facilities, it did so under the premise that it would improve the quality of life of the workers; that the companies would be self-sustaining; that they would guarantee the product at fair prices to the people; and that they would use the least harmful mechanisms possible for the environment, neighbours & workers. However, the opposite has happened….they owe labour liabilities and have a collective contract that does not guarantee benefits for the working masses…the cement is only available at speculative prices, and pollution levels are increasing.”
Public sector workers feel particularly betrayed by the regime. While Chavez had focussed on increasing public sector employment, the regime can now no longer afford to pay its workers. Collective bargaining agreements have been torn up and a flat payment for all public sector workers imposed, all without consulting the workers or their union leaders.
Iván Freites, head of the United Federation of Oil Workers of Venezuela (Futpv), denounced the government’s action as one that “violates the National Constitution and the Framework Law on Labour which is the basis for collective bargaining agreements.”
One worker at the nationalised CANTV telecommunications company said: “It makes no sense that someone who’s just starting at the company gets the same as someone with 15 years here. Now the janitor, the manager, the secretary, everyone earns the same. Nonsense. I can’t complain to my bosses, because they’re screwed too.”
Moreover the regime frequently interferes in union elections and undermines workers’ representatives. For workers, the Chavista regime has truly been a disaster. Not only is the Government rolling back rights acquired by the unions over many decades, but many employees are losing their jobs. No wonder that over 3 million Venezuelans have already fled the country. As one worker at the state oil company said recently, "Now what we ask each other is: 'When are you leaving and for where?”
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