On Wednesday 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 new 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.
Two marches in Caracas: A city and country divided
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 criticized 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.
Increases in the minimum wage
As of today the minimum wage will be 2457 Bolivars, an increase of 20 per cent.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 per cent increase in the minimum wage, and another one in November of 5-10 per cent, depending on inflation.
According to Maduro, 60 per cent of workers now have formal employment, and 40 per cent of workers are informal. Before 1998, a majority of Venezuelan workers were informal.
Manuel Cova, General Secretary of the opposition union CTV, criticised the government for devaluing the Bolivar, and "destroying the purchasing power of the workers." He argued that 5000 Bolivars were necessary to survive, and that a wage increase of 20 per cent was "deficient."
During his election campaign, after the devaluation in February, Capriles promised a wage increase of 40 per cent. 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.
Celebrating new labour law
Pro-government marchers also celebrated the labour law which was passed on April 30, 2012, and comes into effect on May 7 this year.
"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.
Tamara Pearson is a writer with Venezuelanalysis.com, where this article originally appeared. The article is reprinted here with permission.
For a photo gallery of May Day rallies in Caracas and in the rest of the country, see here.
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