For more than a month, public sector workers have been in the streets, in countless demonstrations demanding their rights. The trigger for this situation is the new Instruction from the National Budget Office. An analysis of Acceso a la Justicia explains the reasons for this increase in conflict and its possible consequences, after a long time of social demobilization in the country. Along the same lines as its actions before the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Criminal Court, and after only a few months of the tripartite dialogue promoted by the ILO, the government shows signs, once again, of its lack of political will to genuinely cooperate with the United Nations system.
Even though last May Nicolás Maduro said that by “taking the minimum wage to half a petro and (…) raising all salary tables we are just starting to recover the salary, that we will take it to the highest level that we can”, little has been done to preserve workers’ salaries and the controversial instruction approved in March by the National Budget Office (Onapre), which has given rise to a significant number of demonstrations by teachers, health personnel and trade unionists of the country’s public sector, has not yet been revoked.
The Instruction for the Adjustment Process of the Public Administration Remuneration System, Collective Agreements, Special Tables and Strategic Companies, which disapplies current collective agreements and intends to impose a benefits tabulator that reduces the integral salary of workers between 40 and 70 %, violates at least half a dozen constitutional provisions. It is also striking that this was issued just days after Maduro announced an adjustment of the minimum wage equivalent to 1,700%.
In the case of university professors, employees and workers, the text in question ignores the salary table provided for in the IV Collective Agreement, which, between some scales, established differences of up to 70% and set, without any type of prior discussion, a linear interscale of 7%.
As if the above were not enough, the Instruction also unilaterally modified the way of calculating benefits, such as bonuses for seniority and premiums for specialization or professionalization, for uniforms and for children.
The National Federation of Public Employees (Fedeunep) has denounced that the changes have meant that workers from different public administration bodies see their incomes significantly reduced. For example, teachers will no longer receive a payment equivalent to 30% of their salary for having a bachelor’s degree, but 25%; those who had master’s degrees will no longer earn a monthly allowance equivalent to 50% of their salary, but 35%; and those with doctorates went from receiving a 60% bonus to 40%.
A review of the text makes it possible to determine that it violates constitutional provisions such as the right to work, the principle of progressiveness of human rights, the legal reserve, the sufficiency of salary and freedom of association, among others.
The cut that the Instruction applied to the bonuses of public officials is outside the Constitution, in which in numeral 1 of its article 89 it clearly states that «No law may establish provisions that alter the intangibility and progressiveness of the labour rights and benefits».
Likewise, the nature of the act is of dubious legality, since the resolution of the Onapre is an administrative act issued by an organization that has the competence to prepare the national budget and help the National Treasury Office to execute it, in accordance with the Organic Law of the Financial Administration of the Public Sector. The Onapre is not empowered in any case to decide on issues such as the remuneration of public administration personnel; that is the power of the personnel and human resources departments of the different organizations.
Despite its effects on the income of civil servants, the authorities have defended the Instruction and insist that they are with the working class. “What the Instruction actually say is that there are no resources, there are no means to solve the needs”, declared deputy Pedro Carreño in a plenary session [of the National Assembly] a few days ago.
The way in which the Onapre resolution was approved, without consultation with the workers’ representatives, confirms the lack of social dialogue in the country. Since Chavismo came to power in 1999, the authorities have refused to sit at the same table with the unions and business associations to discuss salary increases and other issues that affect both groups.
So far this has only happened on one occasion, last April and at the request of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which has been advocating for the recovery of the so-called tripartite dialogue.
The Instruction also go against what Maduro declared on May 1, when he stated the following: “In the midst of the economic war, I have given an order and hereby ratify it, all contracts and collective agreements of all the workers of the country shall be discussed and improved, without exception. Wages, salary tables and collective contracts to move forward”.
In practice, the administrative act has rewritten all the collective agreements, significantly worsening the income of public officials. The latter is no small thing, since the State is the main employer in Venezuela: 5,509,563 people work in a public body, almost 4 million of them in the military sector, according to a report published by Transparencia Venezuela and in which data from Onapre itself is cited.
To the foregoing, it must be added that the current minimum wage is insufficient to cover the basic basket, so the reduction in the income of civil servants only contributes to complicate their survival and that of their families. In May the basic basket was located at 482 US dollars, for which 16 minimum wages would be needed to cover it.
Up in arms
The Instruction have brought teachers, nurses and administrative employees from different sectors, active and retired, out onto the streets, with which it seems that social protest is reviving in the country. In July alone, 143 demonstrations were registered against the decision of the Onapre, as reported by the Observatory of Social Conflict of Venezuela and the Institute of Higher Trade Union Studies (Inaesin). So far this year, 15% more street actions have been recorded than in 2021.
The mobilizations so far have served for the authorities to take some steps back. For example, the Minister of University Education, Tibisay Lucena, announced in recent days that education workers would receive all 105 days of the vacation bonus provided for in the collective contract. Likewise, on August 12, Maduro dismissed the head of Onapre, Marco Polo Cotenza.
However, these measures do not seem to put an end to the protests, as the unions want the rule to be annulled.
And what has the TSJ said?
No surprises. The Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), through the Political-Administrative Chamber, beyond admitting a couple of nullity claims against the instruction presented by the national universities Central University of Venezuela (UCV), Universidad Nacional Experimental Politécnica Antonio José de Sucre (Unexpo), Universidad Pedagógica Experimental Libertador (UPEL) and Universidad de Carabobo (UC) on the one hand, and Universidad de los Andes (ULA) on the other, lost the opportunity to grant justice to public employees, since it dismissed requests to suspend it in a precautionary manner while the annulment trial lasted. This shows, once again, that the TSJ does not issue rulings that in some way bother the national Executive, and fails to rule on the loss that the Instruction is generating in the pockets of public sector workers.
And how does it affect you, Venezuelan?
The social unrest caused by the Onapre Instruction makes it clear that, even though the Maduro government has called itself “worker”, it maintains a policy contrary to the sector and does not hesitate to hit it when it deems it convenient.
It is also another proof that the Constitution is a dead letter in the country, because even though it prohibits any deterioration in labor rights, these are curtailed by the authorities without the Judiciary taking action on the matter. We cannot forget that seven study houses asked the TSJ for the precautionary suspension of the Instruction until a final decision is issued on their adherence to the law, but the highest court refused to do so, although the income of the officials is being effectively reduced, affecting, among other rights, that of effective judicial protection.
The only way to prevent social unrest from continuing to grow and the already dire conditions of active and retired public officials from worsening is for the National Executive to revoke the disputed administrative act.