May Day is supposed to be a moment when the workers of the world unite. But in Nicaragua, International Workers’ Day has become another example of the partisan divide that exists between Sandinista unions that echo the official party line and opposition workers who claim the government is no better than any other heavy-handed employer.
As thousands of Sandinista union members march on Managua Tuesday morning to celebrate perceived labor advances under President Daniel Ortega and reiterate concerns already voiced by his administration—particularly the government’s rejection of the IMF’s efforts to get Nicaragua to reform its Social Security system and extend retirement age to 65—opposition workers say there is “nothing to celebrate here.”
“May 1 should be a day of national mourning for the working class,” says Alvaro Leiva, secretary of labor affairs for the Democratic Federation of Public Sector Workers (Fedetrasep). “The situation is particularly bad for public employees, who have a very unstable labor environment where there is no respect for independent unions or collective bargaining.”
Since President Ortega returned to power in 2007, Leiva’s federation has documented more than 23,000 cases of public workers who were “arbitrarily fired without due process.” He says that in most of those cases, workers were laid-off for not being Sandinista party members.
In addition, Leiva says, the government has refused to give severance pay to fired workers and is now in arrears of $28.6 million to 19,000 former state employees. “That’s public debt that this government has accumulated,” Leiva told The Nicaragua Dispatch.
Fedestrasep last year filed two international complaints against the Government of Nicaragua before the Central American Court of Justice and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He says the Central American Court of Justice is expected to rule later this month.
Leiva says the Ortega administration has also gone after non-Sandinista workers’ unions, disarticulating 150 of them in the past five years. In total, Leiva says, the Sandinista government has violated 15 out of 70 international labor conventions related to collective bargaining, freedom to form independent unions, work inspections, and child labor, among others.
In the coming weeks, Leiva says Fedestrasep is going to file an international labor-rights trade enforcement case against Nicaragua under Chapter 16 of the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
Gov’t celebrates advances
On the parallel plane of official narrative, government media this week is reporting that workers “have a lot to celebrate this May 1” because “the Sandinista government has restituted the rights of workers.”
Luis Barbosa, head of the Center for Sandinista Workers (CST), applauded President Ortega for respecting minimum-wage regulations in the Labor Code, which establishes that the minimum wage should be renegotiated every six months. Barbosa said that during the “16 years of neoliberal governments,” the minimum wage was renegotiated only six times, but under Ortega it has been renegotiated 11 times in five years.
The Sandinista union boss also celebrated all the government subsidies for transportation and electricity, and said the “Christian, Socialist and Solidarity Bonus” of 700 córdobas ($30) doled out each month to 160,000 state workers who have to wait in a long bank line each month for their eleemosynary extra, is another achievement for the proletariat.
Barbosa did, however, say that unions need to keep fighting to make sure that workers who put in an 8-hour day should—in fact—make enough money to cover the basic cost of living, without having to wait in line for government charity at the end of each month. Despite a 120% increase in minimum wage over the past five years, many hardworking Nicaraguans still don’t earn enough to meet the rising costs of living.
Public school teachers, for example, earn only half of what it costs to provide the canasta basica, a list of 56 basic food and household items needed to support an average family. An average teacher in Nicaragua earns around $185-$226 a month, less than minors, market vendors, factory workers, construction workers, purse-snatchers and weekend prostitutes, to name a few.
Still, the Labor Ministry’s evaluation of its performance protecting workers’ rights is generous and kind.
Labor Minister Jeanette Chávez notes that the number of insured workers has jumped from 400,000 to 630,000 since President Ortega returned to power.
In an interview with Sandinista media—the only media that will do for the good minister—she said that government social programs to give micro-credits to farmers, workers and women have helped many people start their own businesses.
Chávez also pointed to the free-trade zones, which now employ 100,000 workers, as an important source of jobs for women, claiming that 80% of workers in free trade zones are women (women’s labor groups claim that’s an old statistic, and that nowadays it’s more like 60% women, 40% men working in free-zones).
Chávez also made note of what is perhaps the most meaningless statistic in Nicaragua: unemployment is at 6.7%. (She didn’t mention the fact that underemployment is still around 45% and some 70% of Nicaraguans toil in the informal economy).
“Social wellbeing and economic growth are the priority of this government,” the labor minister concluded.
Next: CAFTA has helped provide thousands of jobs in Nicaragua, but is it doing enough to protect workers’ rights?