Venezuelan Workers Allege Persecution, Trade Union Leaders Arrested

Workers at Lacteos Los Andes and private right-leaning television state Venevision have denounced alleged violations of Venezuelan labor law, while numerous detained farmers were freed in Barinas after winning thier court battle against the ex-land owner.

workplace problems in Lacteos Los Andes
workplace problems in Lacteos Los Andes

Merida, February 6, 2018 ( Venezuelan workers’ organizations have denounced illegal arrests, firings, and persecution in the Lacteos Los Andes state-run dairy company and private Venevision TV station this week, while campesino leaders in Barinas state were freed and authorized to return to their land following persecution by an ex-land owner.

Trade union leaders of the Lacteos Los Andes “Hugo Chavez” plant in Cabudare, Lara state, were arrested this past Thursday following peaceful protests by its workforce aimed at drawing attention to what they decried as inefficient and unproductive policies on the part of the current management.

Protesters denounced that the plant, which produces a range of dairy and fruit products, is operating at around only 20% capacity. It was nationalised by President Hugo Chavez in 2008.

Workers explained that this low productive turnout is also due to its “lack of raw materials”. Workers explained that of the 45,000 tonnes which this firm once produced, output has dropped to 5,000 tonnes, a situation which contributes to shortages in basic foodstuffs across Venezuela. Workers also denounced that they suffered from “an expired collective contract,”which they say was voided 20 months ago.

Workers at the picket lines of the protest drew attention to the fact that private firms in the same industry, such as Polar, El Tunal, and Procter & Gamble enjoy preferential access to state dollars for raw material imports, whilst state-run productive units such as the Cabudare plant, struggled to find enough raw materials for thier production. Workers linked what they described as a lack of commitment from the authorities to fears of a possible re-privatization of the plant, which would put thier jobs in jeopardy.

The inclusion of politicians who are also owners of food-importing companies in the cabinet of Maduro has been amply criticised in the past. Worries that the current government is moving towards the re-privatization of such State-run firms has been reflected in greater involvement of the private sector in the State oil firm, PDVSA, and the putting up for sale of the nationalised supermarket chain, Abastos Bicentenario in the past year.

According to trade union representative Angel Manuel Medina, the protest was part of a national day of action on the part of Lacteos Los Andes workers. The state firm employs over 6,000 workers across the country, with 1,850 located in Lara State.

After PSUV Governor Carmen Melendez reportedly failed to receive a commission of the dairy workers, they proceeded to block a major highway in protest. That evening, numerous trade union leaders were arrested. According to Venezuelanalysis correspondent Katrina Kozarek, the demonstration coincided with numerous other protests in Lara state against medicine shortages, creating a tense atmosphere in the region that may have impacted the police’s decision.

To date, Exio Urriola (President of the Trade Union), Carlos Mora (General Secretary), and Jimmy Merchan (Complaints Secretary) have yet to be released.

The leftist trade union confederation, the National Front for the Struggle of the Working Class (FNLCT), published a statement in which they “deplored” the “arbitrary detention” of these workers. They state that the protests, which they say were aimed at “rescuing this firm”, were “legitimate actions”.

FNLCT General Coordinator, Pedro Eusse, speaking exclusively with Venezuelanalysis, explained, “The protest of these workers was for the dispatch of resources which would allow the recuperation of this firm, to make it more efficient and improve the workplce conditions”.

“There is a general worry that there is closed door process being taken forward to reprivatize this industry,” he added.

The Communist Party of Venezuela also pronounced itself in solidarity with the workers, stating, “Everything seems to indicate that this forms part of an aggression against those who legally exercise the defence of workers’ rights.” They also demanded the “unconditional release” of the detained trade unionists.

“The arrest of these comrades is completely irregular, there was no violence in the protest, but rather the police went to their houses that evening [after the protest] and arrested them. One of those arrested [Exio Urriola] wasn’t even present at the protest,” Eusse told VA.

“For us, it is clear that they are criminalising a legitimate workers protest with the objective of destroying the morale of the trade union leaders,” the union leader continued.

Venezuela’s largest trade union confederation, the Bolivarian Socialist Workers Centre (CBST), has yet to comment on the situation.

Venevision case

Meanwhile, workers at the private right-leaning TV station Venevision have accused the parent company, the Cisneros Group, of carrying out what they term “anti-worker offensive” which they say has forced over 3,000 workers out of work.

“Currently, Venevision has 748 workers, which is the result of a deliberate policy of personnel reduction through persecution, siege, harassment, and the systematic reduction in wages in a firm which at one point had more than 4,000 workers,” reads a declaration signed by Venevision workers on February 1.

According to the communique, more than 2,000 workers have been “pressured” to withdraw from the firm “in what has gone of 2018 alone”.

Representatives of the workforce further denounced the transfer of the station’s activities to its subsidiary company, Venevision Plus, as a cost-saving, anti-worker measure. Venevision Plus works with an automatized master control and requires only 200 workers.

The multinational Cisneros Group, whose owner Gustavo Cisneros is estimated to be worth $1.4 billion, is accused of violating Venezuelan law both in its treatment of workers, as well as imposing illegal working hours, and violating workplace irremovability. Furthermore, the firm is alleged to be reneging on legal benefits to the their workers, such as food tickets, the payment of school uniforms for the children of the employees, and the failure to make available necessary security equipment.

The workers explained that they have raised their complaints with the Ministry of Labour and the labour inspectors, who are the competent authorities charged with overseeing such irregularities, but have yet to receive a response.

Barinas campesinos allowed to return to their land

Elsewhere, in Barinas State, the localities 2nd Municipal Court ordered that farmers were to be released and allowed to return to their land following recent violent arrests by the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) this past Wednesday in which over 60 citizens were detained and a school was destroyed.

Judge Osmar Pernia ruled that the Gavilan-La Chaqueta ranch was considered the campesinos’ place of residence and ordered the immediate return of their possessions, tools, agricultural machinery, vehicles, and over 400 cattle which had been confiscated by the GNB.

The 4,312 hectares of the Gavilan-La Chaqueta Ranch was legally partially occupied by hundreds of campesinos organised into communal councils and social organizations – two years ago after more than 20 years without production. Currently, it produces 200 litres of milk a day, as well as important rice, plantain, and yucca production. Under Venezuela’s 2001 Land Law, large unproductive landholdings can be taken over by farmers willing to put them to use.

However, two of the campesino leaders, Alexander Soto and Wiston Olivera, remain behind bars due to a further accusation of cattle theft filed against them by the previous owner of the ranch, Manuel Mansilla, a large landowner in the region.

Community TV station Alba TV, which has covered the story, explains that such accusations are “common mechanisms used [by the large landowners] to criminalise campesino leaders.”

Soto and Olivera are set to face trial next Monday.

Update: As of February 7, Carlos Mora and Exio Urriola have been released.