Caracas, Venezuela, September 9, 2005—Venezuelan military seized a Heinz Ketchup plant in Venezuela’s Monagas state last Monday. Heinz company representatives complained that the seizure represented, “a violation of property rights and free trade as well as due process.” Venezuela’s Minister for Agriculture and Land, Antonio Albarrán, argued, though, that 80% of the plant actually belongs to the workers and that Heinz bought the plant illegally in 1996. The plant has been closed for nearly a decade, according to Albarrán.
The take-over of the Heinz plant in the town of Caicara, Monagas, was carried out by Venezuelan troops at the request of the pro-Chavez state governor, José Gregorio Briceño. The move comes at a time that the Chavez government is investigating over 700 closed enterprises, evaluating them for their suitability for worker takeovers, via expropriation.
Workers at many other factories and businesses have begun taking matters in their own hands, not waiting for the government to act in the expropriation of idle factories.
The president of the anti-Chavez industrial business federation Conindustria, Juan Francisco Mejías, said that he hopes that the government will “rectify” its action in the case of the Heinz tomato processing plant.
However, the president of the National Confederation of Ranchers and Agricultural Businesses, José Augustín Campos, a group that is considered to be close to the government, said that Heinz's closing of the plant was a “criminal act” because it caused all the surrounding tomato growers to go out of business.
The coordinator of Venezuela’s new union federation, the National Union of Venezuelan Workers (UNT – Unión Nacional de Trabajadores Venezolanos), Marcela Máspero, said that the UNT is considering the take-over of 800 closed businesses. “Accompanied by the communities, we will occupy these businesses because we cannot continue to allow that the reactivation of the country’s productive apparatus is diminished due to the closure of businesses,” said Máspero.
Máspero also said that the UNT would ask Venezuela’s National Assembly to declare these businesses of “public utility,” a necessary step prior to the government’s expropriation of privately owned businesses. Máspero estimates that up to 20,000 jobs could be rescued via such takeovers.
According to Máspero there are currently eight businesses in Venezuela that workers have occupied, to which belongs the Heinz plant in Monagas. Others include Probamasa, a corn processing plant owned by the food and beverage company Polar; a plant belonging to the dairy company Parmalat, in Machiques; Parmalat in Barquisimeto; Sideroca Proacero in Cabimas; the valve factory Inveval in Los Teques; the paper plant Invepal in Morón; and the meat-packing company Fribarsa in Barinas. Only two of these, Inveval and Invepal, have completed the full legal procedure for turning the plants over to the workers.
Máspero explained, “First we occupy and then we resolve the issue of ownership, as there is always a reason for the occupation.” As an example she cited the recently occupied Promabrasa, where “the workers told us that for over six months now the business owes them back pay. We requested an inspection by the Ministry of Labor and they are carrying out all the legal procedures.”
According to Venezuelan law, once the National Assembly declares a business to be of “public utility,” the executive may expropriate it, compensating legal owners at market value for the business. Chavez has said that his government would turn such expropriated businesses into state and worker co-managed businesses.Venezuela’s Labor Minister, Maria Cristina Iglesias, recently provided an assessment of the 700 businesses the government is considering for expropriation. According to Iglesias, in 155 of the cases both owners and workers have already committed themselves to the principle of co-management, implying that original owners and the workers would co-manage these, without the state’s involvement.