January 18, 2006, Caracas, Venezuela—Ongoing negotiations between the National Workers Union (UNT) and the government have resulted in the agreement on a multi-tiered raise system for government salary increases this year, announced Chavez this past Sunday, during his weekly television program, Aló Presidente.
While the details have not yet been finalized, Orlando Chirino, head of the UNT, told Venezuelanalysis.com that he is confident that the union and the government will come to an agreement in the next one to two weeks.
“The workers who earn the least will receive the biggest percentage raises,” said Chirino, describing the tiered system. The biggest bone of contention between the union and the government, according to Chirino, was that the union was asking for immediate across the board wage increases, but while the government did not initially support raising the salaries of employees earning more than Bs 1.2 million (approximately $600) a month.
Speaking about an across the board salary increase last Friday during his yearly address to the National Assembly Venezuelan Hugo Chávez said, “It was something that was pending because of the minimum wage increases in 2004 and 2005, in spite of the fact that I don’t fully believe in the old salary scale because it’s still the old scale and it doesn’t seem fair to me that when the minimum wage is increased, while one person who’s at the minimum wage level receives an increase of x, another effect of the adjustment is that someone who’s on the top of the pyramid receives a raise of five x.” In the same speech, Chávez said Bs 2.5 trillion (approximately $1.2 billion) would be earmarked for government salary increases. According to Bloomerg, this is about 3 times last year’s increase for government employees.
According to Chirino, the government has agreed to raise the salaries of all government employees, even those who earn the top salaries, albeit at a lower level than low-income workers. “We agree with the government, that those who earn the least should get the largest raises,” he said.
During the past two years, the government gave raises only to government workers earning the minimum, about $200 per month. Other workers, even those who earned near the bottom of the scale, haven’t received a raise in three years. The combined inflation of 2004 and 2005 was over 30 percent according to Central Bank figures.
“[Raising only the minimum wage] has a negative psychological impact on workers,” said Miguel Laffe, a government employee. “My sister works for the government and she was making just above the minimum wage, and so she ended up receiving no raise at all,” he added.
Laffe works as the Caracas Coordinator for the Minister of Education and Sport’s National Institute of Youth (INJ), a branch of the Ministry whose employees are generally supportive of the Chávez administration. Now he earns about $400 per month, after a December promotion. Laffe hadn’t heard that the government was planning across the board salary increases, but he was supportive of it. “If you don’t raise salaries across the board, then people feel that their work isn’t being valued,” he said.
His secretary, Arlyth Robles, who earns the minimum wage, also supported across the board salary increases. “The only negative aspect is that it can increase inflation,” she said.
Unlike her boss, who said that it would be better if government workers (including himself) earned more but that at times it was necessary to work for less money when the cause was worthwhile, Robles said government salaries should be higher. “[Our salaries] are not fair. This is a petroleum country; we are rich in natural resources. There is money to pay us, but the elites have been taking it out of the country. It’s not right that people who work a lot earn very little,” she said.
The UNT, the group negotiating the raises with the government, is a relatively new union, started in May of 2003, after the oil industry shut-down during which many workers became discontent with the National Confederation of Workers (CTV), whose leadership was attempting to overthrow the government. The UNT is generally seen as sympathetic to the Chávez administration, but is fully separate from the government.
In the coming months, Chirino said the UNT will continue negotiating with the government. Among the changes the UNT is seeking are a complete revision of salary scales; the inclusion of now autonomous sectors, such as mayors offices under the salary scales; and a comprehensive negotiation of government workers’ contracts, looking at everything from pensions to job security. “We’re looking to bring government contracts in line with the new constitution, and eliminate the egoism, individuality and inequality [of the old system],” he explained.