Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched through the streets of Caracas.
“The triumph of the people, of the workers, has never come about without a long process of resistance, of struggle, suffering even. This law, which I will have the honour of signing ... is the product of a long process of struggle,” said President Chávez.
The legislation reduces the work week to 40 hours and seeks to abolish private sub-contracted labour in the country, which the state views as an exploitative practice and relic of neo-liberal policies of the 1990s.
Women’s rights groups hailed the law as a big step forward for gender equity in the workplace by increasing post-natal maternity leave from 12 to 25 weeks and protecting new parents from dismissal for up to two years after the child’s birth.
One of the greatest victories cited by workers’ collectives is the reinstatement of specific workers’ rights dismantled by the Rafael Caldera administration under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and corporate interests in 1997.
Along with the re-establishment of the retirement bonus – a worker’s last monthly wage multiplied by their years of service – the new law requires that employers compensate workers who are unfairly dismissed by an amount double their retirement bonus.
A government agency will be established to monitor employers’ compliance with the new law, which will be implemented in 12 months. Workers will now have the option of having their retirement processed in a private bank, a public bank, or the new state-owned national retirement fund.
Earlier this year, Chávez announced a 32.5 percent increase in the monthly minimum wage, to be carried out in two phases. The first phase took effect on May 1 with an increase from 1,548 bolivares (US$360) to 1,780 bolivares (US$413.90). In September, it will increase another 15 percent to 2,047 bolivares (US$476).
Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro called the labour law “an instrument for constructing the highest stage of socialism,” and contrasted it with the anti-worker laws that are being enacted in Spain where a quarter of the labour market is unemployed.
Venezuelan lawmakers began discussing labour reform nearly nine years ago, but it only gained momentum when Chávez promised to address the issue last November after receiving calls from workers’ groups to “revolutionise” current labour laws.
“We are re-affirming our willingness to ... move on from capitalist relations of production, which condemn workers to exploitation, to socialist relations of production, which allow us to construct a new order of labour in freedom, solidarity and participation, with absolutely no exploitation,” said Pedro Eusse, general secretary of the Venezuelan Communist Party.
The government used grassroots institutions established by the Chávez administration over the past decade to collect input from a large cross-section of society. During the five-month consultation process with communal councils, trade unions, and political parties, the government received 19,000 proposals, 90 percent of them from workers themselves.
According to International Consulting Services, an international polling agency, over 80 percent of Venezuelans hold a positive view of the law, compared to 13 percent who do not. The new law replaces the original labour law that was enacted in 1936 amid rising tension between workers and foreign companies, an event which sparked the nation’s labour movement.
Some organisations have emphasised that the struggle continues and called on people to remain combative. Questions remain about the role of the informal sector, the strengthening of socialist workers’ councils, and the transfer of decision-making over management and production to workers.
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