Underpaid Venezuelans skipping out on work to make ends meet

In this Feb. 7, 2018, commuters wait for public transportation in Caracas, Venezuela. Workers struggle getting to their jobs because the buses are full or don't run, or they can't find spare parts for their cars. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
In this Feb. 6, 2018 photo, bakery workers make deserts at Danubio bakery in Caracas, Venezuela. Many long-time employees have fled the country and called from abroad to tell their former boss they're not returning, and other days word spreads of a market selling discounted flour, so everybody leaves to get in line. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
In this Feb. 6, 2018 photo, bakery workers eat lunch in the workers' dining area of Danubio bakery in Caracas, Venezuela. Many at Danubio said bus fare eats up their paychecks despite earning 30 percent more than minimum wage. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
In this Feb. 7, 2018 photo, men help a woman get on the back of a truck providing public transportation in Caracas, Venezuela. In recent weeks, newspapers and social media have been filled with reports of work stoppages at the Caracas subway system as workers scraping by on meager paychecks don't show up for work. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
In this Feb. 6, 2018 photo, bakery workers hold plates as they wait in line to reach the workers' dining area for lunch at Danubio bakery in Caracas, Venezuela. For many at Danubio, the two free meals a day they get at work make the job worthwhile, which pays 30 percent more than minimum wage. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
In this Feb. 7, 2018 photo, a woman holds a wad of bills to pay her bus fare in Caracas, Venezuela. Along with four-digit inflation, widespread shortages and a recession deeper than the U.S. Great Depression, Venezuela's economy is now being ravaged by a new scourge: mass absenteeism. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

CARACAS, Venezuela — On many days, Ramon Medina has no choice but to skip work to make ends meet.

Like around half of Venezuelans, he earns the minimum wage — the equivalent of around $3 a month — so whenever his cellphone buzzes with a tip, he sneaks away from his job as a hospital orderly for the chance of taking home a government-supplied food bag on which he depends to feed his family.

He's not the only one hustling. On any given day, he estimates a third of his co-workers at Vargas Hospital in Caracas are also stepping out for a lucrative side job or spending hours in line to buy flour and cooking oil at bargain-basement prices impossible to pass up. That leaves few back in the hospital caring for sick patients, the 55-year-old said.

"You do what you can to help out," he said of his job, but added, "People are discouraged."

Along with four-digit inflation, widespread shortages and a recession deeper than the U.S. Great Depression, Venezuela's economy is now being ravaged by a new scourge: mass absenteeism.

In recent weeks, newspapers and social media have been filled with reports of work stoppages at the Caracas subway system or the state-run oil company as workers scraping by on meager paychecks can't be bothered to show up for work. Private companies complain they can't find enough workers to punch the clock, exacerbating a standstill in what few assembly lines are still running.

The crisis is spiraling out of control even as President Nicolas Maduro is seeking a second term in a snap election his supporters recently set for April 22, drawing condemnation from the U.S. and other countries who say he's flouting Venezuela's democratic tradition. Yet, Maduro has turned the economic crisis to his advantage, analysts say.

Douglas Barrios, a Venezuelan economist at Harvard University, said that in 2012, before the country sank into recession, the country's monthly minimum wage equaled $300, on par with those of other Latin American nations and enough to support a family with rent and food.

That has since dramatically changed, he said, noting that today it takes a worker nearly two weeks to earn enough to buy two pounds of powdered milk.

Normally, voters would turn their backs on a government under such circumstances. But Maduro is locking in support by making voters dependent on discounted government food bags and by announcing wage hikes before energized live audiences on nationally televised broadcasts.

"You support us and you have access to food," Barrios said, explaining what he sees as the government's strategy. "If you don't support us, you go figure out how to make ends meet."

The government has accused opponents of waging an "economic war" on Maduro and point to recent sanctions by the Trump administration banning lending to the government as further proof of sabotage. Far from throwing in the towel, it says it is expanding social programs like the food parcels to protect the poor.

"The revolution guarantees the people are protected," Maduro tweeted this week.

Jenny Mejia, 24, said she's not fooled. She recently walked away from her low-paying job at a lunch counter to sell bottles of shoe glue stacked on a table along a busy street in Caracas. It takes her about a week to earn the equivalent of the monthly minimum wage.

"With Maduro, more hunger is assured," said Mejia, who receives the government food bags but vows she won't support his re-election bid.

Socialist Venezuela's battle with absenteeism isn't new. The late Hugo Chavez in 2001 signed a decree that came to be known as the Law of Labor Immobility that makes it but impossible for employers to fire a worker without their consent.

But the problem has grown worse as the economy has unraveled and price distortions have become more pronounced. For many Venezuelans, the choice is going to work for a few pennies a day or scavenging for the declining number of products sold at controlled prices and reselling them on the black market for several times their official value.

Venezuela no longer publishes labor statistics, but workers in Caracas' busy subway estimated that as many as 70 percent of their colleagues don't show up some days. The country's state-run oil firm PDVSA — virtually the only source of hard currency — is losing workers due to low wages and a lack of safety, said Venezuelan economist Francisco Monaldi, a Latin American energy policy expert at Rice University in Houston.

"Those who can, leave the country," Monaldi said. "Others simply do not show up to work."

Companies juggling to stay in business have no choice but to remain flexible.

At Danubio bakery one day recently, some of the 300 employees squeezed past one another preparing pastries, cakes and lasagna. Many said bus fare eats up their paychecks despite earning 30 percent more than minimum wage.

For many, the two meals a day they get at work make it worthwhile.

"Coming to work is a kind of relief," said Andrew Kerese, who runs the successful family business with five bakeries across Caracas. "Here people have breakfast and lunch."

However, many long-time employees have fled the country and called Kerese from abroad to tell him they're not returning. Others struggle getting to work because the buses are full or don't run, or they can't find spare parts for their cars. Some days, word spreads of a market selling discounted flour, so everybody leaves to get in line.

Antonio Golindano's daily journey into work at the bakery starts at 4 a.m. The 71-year-old has tied on his apron and sifted flour there for four decades. But he said the hardships make it harder for him every day.

"I do the impossible to come and fulfill my duty," he said. "It is my obligation to come to work."

People also read these

Stock markets cautious ahead of key Fed speech

Aug 26, 2016

European shares are mostly lower following mixed trading in Asia, with investors preferring to sit on the sidelines ahead of U.S. Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen's speech later in the day for cues on the timing of the next policy rate hike

Global stocks lower, except for Tokyo, on Yellen speech

Aug 29, 2016

Most global stocks slipped Monday on remarks from the U.S. Federal Reserve late last week that the case has strengthened for raising interest rates, but the Tokyo market was an exception and gained on prospects for a strong dollar

Asian stocks mixed ahead of US jobs data

Aug 31, 2016

Asian stocks are mixed Wednesday in listless trading ahead of jobs data later this week and continued anticipation of higher interest rates in the U.S. Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 gained 0.8 percent to 16,857.07 in morning trading

Subscribe to our newsletter!

Your Name

Your Email Address