Page last updated at 10:31 GMT, Wednesday, 7 April 2010 11:31 UK

Venezuelan trade union members face rising violence

By Anahi Aradas

Building project in Caracas
There are more than 700 unions in the building sector

Vilma Zambrano, a union leader, was eating a hot dog in the street in the Charanga district of Venezuela's capital, Caracas, last month when a member of her own union shot her without exchanging a single word.

Ms Zambrano, who was pregnant, died on the spot, in the arms of her 17-year-old daughter.

"That day another union leader of the same group was shot in the neighbourhood of Petare," says Solanye Zambrano, a sergeant in the Metropolitan Police of Caracas. "Everything indicates there are organised crime gangs in the building sector."

Crimes like this among union activists in Venezuela are not new, particularly in construction. But what it is unusual is such an attack in broad daylight in central Caracas.

Violence among unions in Venezuela is something serious and we and the government are trying to reduce it
Daniel Coa

"Venezuela is the second most dangerous place in the world to have an active role in a union after Colombia," says Lorenzo Labrique, a Belgian expert in labour issues who works for the Venezuelan human rights group, Provea.

"The difference with Colombia is that while unionists there tend to be murdered by right-wing paramilitaries to stop them from operating, in Venezuela most union members are killed as a result of quarrels within the union itself or because of bad blood between rival unions.

"Some unions in the building sector are big business and many of them behave like mafias," Mr Labrique said.

"One of the reasons for such confrontations is the great level of democracy we now have in Venezuela," says Asdrubal Lopez, deputy of the ruling socialist party, PSUV. "Today it is not as difficult to create a union as it was in the past."


According to official figures, the number of unions in Venezuela has increased exponentially in recent years from 1,200 in 1998 to more than 6,000 in 2009 - with 736 different unions in the building sector alone.

Graffit on wall
Union violence is becoming more serious in some areas

"Workers have more rights than ever before. In construction, they have obtained better working conditions and greater social security entitlements, such as retirement plans and life insurance," said Mr Lopez.

Union violence existed in Venezuela long before President Hugo Chavez came to power. However, spokesmen from several unions, politicians and human rights organisations have warned that the current situation is becoming critical, especially in Bolivar state in southern Venezuela.

According to Provea, 46 union leaders were murdered between 2008 and 2009; while nearly 50 were killed in 2007.

But these figures do not tell the whole story. Not included is the number of trade unionists, workers and even hired killers who died in the internecine violence. The origin of such crimes, says the human rights group, is the struggle for control of lucrative building projects.

In Venezuela, a law states that 75% of the labour force on a building site must be provided by the unions, something which has led to a common but illegal practice by some unions.

First they can extort money from the company, which is expected to pay up to "keep the peace" with the union and ensure there are no strikes. But money is also made from "cupos", an informal fee paid by every worker hired - usually as a percentage of their salary.

Guns on the table

Unions say that some companies are taking advantage of the situation, preferring to contract union leaders with a criminal background in order to intimidate and exploit their workers.

The unions have lost strength, and the authorities are doing nothing to stop union members carrying weapons
Paastora Medina
Frente Humanista

"Occasionally meetings are done with guns on the table," said a human resources manager of a major European transnational company, who did not want to give their name.

"Then they ask you for bribes that can be as high as 200,000 bolivares (US$43,000) depending on the project. You often have to hire three or four of these union members as supervisors with full salary, even if they never step foot on the project site."

Few people in charge of union negotiations will discuss these issues openly with the media, especially after the high-profile death of one of their colleagues, Rafael Riera, who was shot to death last February when leaving a railway construction project in Valencia state.

Many negotiators for the private companies say they are constantly threatened with kidnappings. As such, they avoid revealing personal information and do not stick to fixed timetables when they go to supervise a project.

"We are totally against these violent practices," says Daniel Coa, secretary of the FUNTBCAC, a workers' union close to the socialist government.

"Violence among unions in Venezuela is something serious and we and the government are trying to reduce it. But the new freedom to establish a union under President Chavez has unfortunately created an increase in violence as some people are trying to take control of the building sites by the barrel of a gun," he added.

Building in Caracas
Both workers and companies have suffered intimidation

An added ingredient to this violence, Mr Coa says, is the government's policy of giving the community councils (government sponsored co-operatives) a share in the works carried out in their areas.

"In some way it has opened the door to the common crime present in some communities".

But not everybody is happy with the government's efforts on this issue.

"The government has de-legitimised the unions, the unions have lost strength, and the authorities are doing nothing to stop union members carrying weapons, even machine guns," says Pastora Medina, deputy of the opposition party, Frente Humanista.

"This situation is getting worse - and it's causing many companies to refuse to invest in Venezuela."

Either way, the creation of so many new unions has opened a debate in Venezuela about the benefits in claiming labour rights for under-represented and exploited workers and its consequences, particularly in terms of the violence.

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