Venezuela’s Electrical Workers Launch Workplace Slowdown Joining Other Industries’ Laborers in Protesting Low Wages

A new wave of labor protests aims at improving the situation of the country’s workers rather than regime change.

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Corpoelec workers in Valencia, Carabobo state, demand salary increases. (ACN)
Corpoelec workers in Valencia, Carabobo state, demand salary increases. (ACN)
By Cira Pascual Marquina
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Vermont, USA, July 24, 2018 (venezuelanalysis.com) – On Monday, workers from Venezuela’s state-run National Electric Company (CORPOELEC) began a nationwide slowdown demanding higher wages and a better collective contract. The workers are organized in the 17,000-member-strong Federation of Electrical Workers (FETRAELEC).

The protesting workers, who showed up to work but refused to carry out maintenance work or deal with emergencies, are also aiming to improve the quality of the electrical service in the country. Their slowdown was accompanied by expressions of solidarity from numerous political parties and social movements.

The leftist trade union FETRAELEC, which has supported the Chavista project on numerous occasions, plans to continue the protest until its demands are met.

Venezuela’s electrical grid has been beset by numerous problems in recent years, with frequent outages, especially in the western states. In public statements, workers have claimed that much of the electrical system is in “an abandoned state,” citing poor working conditions, a lack of vehicles, and a scarcity of repair parts to attend to electrical emergencies as some of the obstacles they confront on the job.

Back in March, CORPOELEC worker and pro-government trade unionist Elio Palacios was temporarily jailed for whistleblowing about the dire state of the electrical grid. The industry has also suffered from an exodus of trained personnel who have decided to seek better paid jobs elsewhere.

The head of FETRAELEC, Angel Navas, said on Monday that the slowdown, initially planned as a strike, started with workers’ assemblies discussing the government’s proposed collective contract. “We have been saying publicly that the situation of electrical workers nationwide is very extreme. Our current salaries aren't enough to pay our bus fares,” Navas explained.

Without disclosing the size of the salary package in the government’s proposed contract, Navas said that the offer was a “slap in the face.” At present, an electrical workers’ monthly salary, at about 5.1 million Bolivars, is not enough to buy a kilo of meat.

The electrical workers’ slowdown is part of an expanding wave of labor protests across the country. The most reported of these actions is the public sector nurses’ strike, which has gone on for more than a month, but sugarcane workers and scientific investigators are also mobilized.

Unlike past protests, such as those in 2017, the current worker-based actions do not call for a change in government. Rather, their common denominator is the low wages that, in Venezuela’s highly inflationary economy, do not meet the basic needs of families. They have also all called for greater government investment and attention to improving their respective sectors.

To date, the government has not commented directly on the CORPOELEC slowdown, which is in keeping with its tendency to downplay the current wave of labor protests.

Last weekend, nevertheless, President Nicolas Maduro discussed the need to reform the whole health sector, calling for a national congress to that end, although he did not specifically address the nurses’ demands.

For his part, Electricity Minister Luis Motta Dominguez recognized earlier this month that the electricity sector was in crisis. He has frequently explained away the poor service by citing acts of sabotage to the electrical infrastructure, most recently in April when he claimed that the network had suffered from acts of vandalism and arson in the Moralito power station in Merida.

However, Reinaldo Diaz, a member of FETRAELEC’s executive committee, denied that there had been sabotage in the sector in a recent interview for Union Radio. Instead, he contended, "much maintenance is needed and much of the equipment has fallen into a state of obsolescence.”

Electrical services seemed largely unaffected during the first day of the protest, confirming FETRAELEC’s claims that the population would not be adversely affected by their action. There was adherence to the protest in numerous parts of the country, including a takeover of the CORPOELEC offices by workers in Merida state and numerous marches and street actions in other regions.