Cuba calls meetings nationwide to explain coming layoffs, seek state workers’ support for them

By Will Weissert, AP
Monday, September 20, 2010

Cuba summons workers to explain coming layoffs

HAVANA — Cuba is calling workers across the island to special meetings so labor leaders can brief them on half a million government layoffs coming in the next six months and suggest ways that those fired can make a living.

The “workers’ assemblies” that began on Sept. 15 include hundreds of meetings with state employees in union halls, government auditoriums and even basements or garages of state-run companies, according to reports Monday in the state-run labor union newspaper Trabajadores.

The proceedings are closed and attendees so far have been tight-lipped about what is being discussed. But Salvador Valdes Mesa, head of the nearly 3 million-member Cuban Workers Confederation, said they are designed to tell workers about “the labor policies that will govern the country in order to achieve the structural changes the economy needs.”

“We are confronting the need to make our economy more efficient, better organize production, increase worker productivity and identify the reserves we have,” Valdes Mesa was quoted as telling a weekend gathering of transportation and port employees.

Two separate stories in Trabajadores, or Workers, quoted Mesa Valdes at a conference in Havana as well as addressing a similar group of state employees in the eastern province of Holguin, making it tough to tell where exactly his quotes were made.

Cuba announced Sept. 13 that it would lay off 500,000 workers by March and loosen state controls on private enterprise so that many of those fired can find new jobs. It said it would also beef up the tax code and revamp state pay scales to better reward high job performance.

President Raul Castro warned in April that as many as 1 million Cuban state employees — a fifth of a total island work force of 5.1 million — may be superfluous. In a subsequent speech in August, he warned job cuts were coming.

Trabjadores quoted Valdes Mesa as saying that “a political process of reflection and analysis with the workers in the assemblies is already under way to study and debate” past Raul Castro speeches, including the one in August.

During such meetings, Cuban workers generally are asked to endorse what reforms the government plans — sometimes there are votes by cheers and sometimes by a show of hands.

For example, state employees gathered in special meetings in 2008 to discuss a parliamentary proposal to raise Cuba’s retirement age, and officially 99.1 percent of attendees supported the measure.

In this case, employee layoffs will be supported by some of the very Cubans who may lose their jobs.

The president has not commented publicly since the reforms were announced, though he has said authorities have no intention of abandoning the socialist state they spent decades building.

Instead, preparing workers for what’s to come has fallen to Valdes Mesa’s union, which is allied with the Communist Party and the only one the government allows.

Some of the meetings include just a few employees from a single office. Others involve hundreds from a whole city neighborhood.

An internal Communist Party document detailing the unprecedented overhaul envisions a radically reshaped economy, freshly legalized private cooperatives and a state payroll trimmed of many idle or unproductive workers.

The document says many laid-off workers will be urged to form private cooperatives. Others will go to work for foreign-run companies or set up their own small businesses in fields such as transportation, food and house rental.

Already, 144,000 Cubans work for themselves and 823,000 overall are part of the private sector, though that includes vast farm cooperatives run in accord with state administrative decisions. The government still employs the other 84 percent of the official work force.

Government workers take home an average of about $20 per month, though the state provides free education and health care and subsidizes housing, utilities, transportation and food. The layoffs will affect all corners of the government except those considered “indispensable.”

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