Large May Day Marches in Venezuela as Workers’ Law Comes into Effect

Today both pro-government and opposition supporters held large marches in Caracas, as well as smaller ones around the country, to mark International Workers Day. While government supporters celebrated a minimum wage increase and the labour law, opponents of the government demanded a “fair wage”.

President Nicolas Maduro marched with the pro-government march in Caracas, while opposition leader Henrique Capriles also marched with his supporters in the eastern part of the capital.

In order to guarantee peaceful marches, Maduro announced a modification to the May Day march route yesterday. The opposition had announced it wanted to march in the east of Caracas, but the pro-government May Day march was set to begin in that area. Maduro changed the starting point.

Yesterday executive secretary of the opposition umbrella group, the MUD, Ramon Aveledo called on workers to attend the mobilisation called by “unions opposed to government”.

“The day of the worker can’t just be about rhetoric and repeating routine, Venezuelans have to defend work and union autonomy,” Aveledo said. He also claimed that he has received a lot of denunciations by public employees who have been allegedly “persecuted” for voting for Capriles.

While unionists and community members marching in support of the government celebrated the gains made by workers, and in some cases also made specific demands for improvements, opposition marches criticised the government, demanded even higher wage increases, and called for more “freedom”. Opposition marchers also waved First Justice party flags, and a few held placards demanding “freedom for Revero”, the retired general who was recently arrested for provoking post election violence.

As of today the minimum wage will be Bs 2,457, an increase of 20%.This also affects pensions, which are paid at the minimum wage rate, and on top of that all workers earn food tickets, and an end of year bonus. Maduro signed the official decree increasing the wage last night.

In September there will be a further 10% increase in the minimum wage, and another one in November of 5-10%, depending on inflation.

According to Maduro, 60% of workers now have formal employment, and 40% of workers are informal. Before 1998, a majority of Venezuelan workers were informal.

General secretary of opposition union CTV, Manuel Cova, criticised the government for devaluing the bolivar, and “destroying the purchasing power of the workers”. He argued that Bs 5,000 were necessary to survive, and that a wage increase of 20% was “deficient”.

However during his election campaign, sometime after the devaluation in February, Capriles promised  a wage increase of 40%. The main difference between his promise and what the government has now approved, is that the wage increase would be all at once, rather than spaced out through the year.

Pro government marchers also celebrated the labour law which was passed on 30 April 2012, and comes into effect on 7 May this year. During his speech Maduro also signed the law’s regulations, which should be published and come into effect as of tomorrow.

“When in the past has the government protected the work stability of Venezuelan workers?,” Maduro asked the large Caracas rally.

As he approved the law last year, President Hugo Chavez said, “In more than 200 years of republican history I am absolutely positive that there has never been a work law….that has been debated so much as this one”.  The law had been under discussion in both the national assembly and by workers and movements since 2003.

Among many other things, the labour law provides for 25 weeks post-natal maternal leave, for some paternal leave, outlaws unfair dismissal, outlaws sub-contracted or outsourced labour, reduces trial periods to a maximum of one month, re-establishes a retirement bonus, and reduces the working week to 40 hours.

For a photo gallery of both marches, in Caracas and in the rest of the country, see here.  

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