Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for freedom of association for all workers (except members of the military, military police, and firefighters), the right to bargain collectively with some restrictions, and the right to strike. The law limits organizing at the enterprise level. By law the armed forces, military police, or firefighters may not strike. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination, including the dismissal of employees who are candidates for, or holders of, union leadership positions, and it requires employers to reinstate workers fired for union activity.
New unions must register with the Ministry of Labor, which accepts the registration unless objections are filed by other unions. The law stipulates certain restrictions, such as unicidade (in essence one union per occupational category per city), which limits freedom of association by prohibiting multiple, competing unions of the same professional category in a single geographical area. Unions that represent workers in the same geographical area and professional category may contest registration.
The law stipulates a strike may be ruled “disruptive” by the labor court, and the union may be subjected to legal penalties if the strike violates certain conditions, such as if the union fails to maintain essential services during a strike, notify employers at least 48 hours before the beginning of a walkout, or end a strike after a labor court decision. Employers may not hire substitute workers during a legal strike or fire workers for strike-related activity, provided the strike is not ruled abusive. In April the Supreme Court ruled against the right of civil police to strike, stating all public security organs are prohibited from striking, including civil police, military police, federal police, fire brigades, railway police, and highway police. Civil police officials filed a grievance with the International Labor Organization (ILO).
The law obliges a union to negotiate on behalf of all registered workers in the professional category and geographical area it represents, regardless of whether an employee pays voluntary membership dues. The law permits the government to reject clauses of collective bargaining agreements that conflict with government policy. A July 2017 law includes collective bargaining changes, such as the ability to negotiate remuneration for the commute to and from work, working remotely, and a flexible hours schedule.
Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were generally respected. Collective bargaining was widespread in establishments in the private sector. Worker organizations were independent of the government and political parties. The Ministry of Labor suspended union registration processes for a period of 90 days beginning on July 23 after a police investigation uncovered evidence that nonexistent unions were being registered fraudulently.
The law prohibits “slave labor,” defined as “reducing someone to a condition analogous to slavery,” including subjecting someone to forced labor, debt bondage, exhausting work hours, and labor performed in degrading working conditions.
Many individuals in slave labor, as defined by the country’s law, were victims of human trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation. The government took actions to enforce the law, although forced labor occurred in a number of states. Violations of forced labor laws are punishable by up to eight years in prison, but this was often not sufficient to deter violations. The law also provides penalties for various crimes related to forced labor, such as illegal recruiting or transporting workers or imposing onerous debt burdens as a condition of employment. Every six months the Ministry of Labor publishes a “Dirty List” of companies found to have employed forced labor. Inclusion on the list prevents companies from receiving loans from state-owned financial institutions. The Labor Prosecutor’s Office, in partnership with the ILO, maintained an online platform that identified hotspots for forced labor.
The National Commission to Eradicate Slave Labor coordinated government efforts to combat forced and exploitative labor and provide a forum for input from civil society actors. The commission’s members included representatives from 10 government agencies or ministries–including Human Rights, Justice, Federal Police, Agriculture, Labor, and Environment–and 20 civil society groups and the private sector. The ILO was also a member.
The Ministry of Labor’s Mobile Inspection Unit teams conducted impromptu inspections of properties where forced labor was suspected or reported, using teams composed of labor inspectors, labor prosecutors from the Federal Labor Prosecutor’s Office, and federal police officers. Mobile teams levied fines on landowners who used forced labor and required employers to provide back pay and benefits to workers before returning the workers to their municipalities of origin. Labor inspectors and prosecutors, however, could apply only civil penalties; consequently, many cases were not criminally prosecuted. Workers removed by mobile units were entitled to three months’ salary at the minimum wage. In early August ministry investigators rescued 18 workers who were laboring on coffee plantations in conditions analogous to slavery.
Forced labor, including forced child labor, was reported in jobs such as clearing forests to provide cattle pastureland, logging, producing charcoal, raising livestock, and other agricultural activities. Forced labor often involved young men drawn from the less-developed northeastern states–Maranhao, Piaui, Tocantins, and Ceara–and the central state of Goias to work in the northern and central-western regions of the country. In addition there were reports of forced labor in the construction industry. News outlets reported cases that amounted to forced labor in production of carnauba wax. Cases of forced labor were also reported in the garment industry in the city of Sao Paulo; the victims were often from neighboring countries, particularly Bolivia, Peru, and Paraguay, while others came from Haiti, South Korea, and China.
According to Global Slavery Index 2018 data, an estimated 369,000 persons were living in modern slavery. These individuals were concentrated in areas that had experienced rapid economic development, mainly in the agricultural sector.
In January labor inspectors rescued 10 men working in “slave-like conditions” in a salt production company in the municipality of Araruama in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The laborers were living in filthy and makeshift accommodations and did not have appropriate equipment to work. The Labor Prosecutor’s Office required employers to terminate their contracts, compensate the victims, and pay unemployment insurance for the rescued workers.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
The minimum working age is 16, and apprenticeships may begin at age 14. The law bars all minors younger than age 18 from work that constitutes a physical strain or occurs in unhealthy, dangerous, or morally harmful conditions. Hazardous work includes an extensive list of activities within 13 occupational categories, including domestic service, garbage scavenging, and fertilizer production. The law requires parental permission for minors to work as apprentices.
According to the Ministry of Labor, in the last two decades, the number of underage working children declined from eight million to 2.7 million. The remaining cases were the most difficult to identify because they often took place in inaccessible rural areas or within a family home.
The Ministry of Labor is responsible for inspecting worksites to enforce child labor laws. Penalties for violations range from 402 reais to 1,891 reais ($105 to $500), doubling for a second violation and tripling for a third, and were generally enforced; however, observers asserted fines were usually too small to serve as an effective deterrent. Most inspections of children in the workplace were driven by complaints brought by workers, teachers, unions, NGOs, and media. Due to legal restrictions, labor inspectors remained unable to enter private homes and farms, where much of the child labor allegedly occurred.
In May a study published by Abrinq Foundation, a Sao Paulo-based entity devoted to the protection of children’s rights, found that 3.3 million children and adolescents (ages five to 17) were in a situation of child labor, including in activities involving bananas, cacao, coffee, corn, fish, hogs, poultry, sheep, and sugarcane. The Ministry of Labor’s National Committee for the Eradication of Child Labor continued to implement the country’s National Plan to Combat Child Labor and maintained a database on the worst forms of child labor occurring in the country.
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings/.
Labor laws and regulations prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender, disability, religion, political opinion, natural origin or citizenship, age, language, and sexual orientation or gender identity. Discrimination against individuals who are HIV positive or suffer from other communicable diseases is also prohibited. The government generally enforced the laws and regulations, although discrimination in employment occurred with respect to Afro-Brazilians, women, persons with disabilities, indigenous persons, and transgender individuals. The Ministry of Labor implemented rules to integrate promotion of racial equality in its programs, including requiring race be included in data for programs financed by the ministry. According to the ILO, women not only earned less than men but also had difficulties entering the workplace: 78 percent of men held paid jobs, compared with 56 percent of women. Although the law prohibits gender discrimination in pay, professional training, and career advancement, the law was not enforced and discrimination existed.
The law provides for a minimum wage. The minimum wage was greater than the official poverty income level. According to 2016 Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) data, however, the per capita income of approximately 40 percent of workers was below the minimum wage. IBGE data also revealed 6.8 percent of workers (12.9 million) were considered “extremely poor” or earning less than 70 reais ($18.40) per month. The Ministry of Labor verified enforcement of minimum wage laws as part of regular labor inspections. Penalties alone were not sufficient to deter violations.
The law limits the workweek to 44 hours and specifies a weekly rest period of 24 consecutive hours, preferably on Sundays. The law also provides for paid annual vacation, prohibits excessive compulsory overtime, limits overtime to two hours per workday, and stipulates that hours worked above the monthly limit must be compensated with at least time-and-a-half pay; these provisions generally were enforced for all groups of workers in the formal sector. The constitution also provides for the right of domestic employees to work a maximum of eight hours of per day, a maximum of 44 hours’ work per week, a minimum wage, a lunch break, social security, and severance pay.
The Ministry of Labor sets occupational, health, and safety standards that are consistent with internationally recognized norms, although unsafe working conditions were prevalent throughout the country, especially in construction. The law requires employers to establish internal committees for accident prevention in workplaces. It also provides for the protection of employees from being fired for their committee activities. Workers could remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, although those in forced labor situations without access to transportation were particularly vulnerable to situations that endangered their health and safety.
In March the regional labor court in Sao Paulo upheld the conviction of M5 Industria e Comercio, owner of the M.Officer brand, under the state’s antislavery law for dumping. The court found M5 had been contracting its production out to firms that hired immigrant persons, who were forced to work beyond the legal maximum number of hours and in unsafe conditions. The court also confirmed the fine of six million reais ($1.6 million).
The Ministry of Labor addressed problems related to acceptable conditions of work such as long workdays and unsafe or unhygienic work conditions. Penalties for violations include fines that vary widely depending on the nature of the violation; the fines were generally enforced and were sometimes sufficient to deter violations. The National Labor Inspection School held various training sessions for labor inspectors throughout the year. The Ministry of Labor reported the number of labor inspectors (2,367) in the country was insufficient to enforce full compliance nationwide. Inspections continued to take place despite reduced funding, leading to fewer inspectors and inspections.
According to the IBGE, 33.3 million persons were employed in the formal sector as of May 2017. The IBGE also reported 22.9 million persons were working in the informal economy, an increase of 5 percent, compared with 2016.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their own choice, the right to strike, and the right to bargain collectively. The law, however, limits the right to strike, facilitates government intervention in internal union affairs, excludes certain categories of workers from joining unions, and permits third parties to seek the dissolution of trade unions, while imposing only minor penalties on employers for unfair labor practices.
Onerous union registration rules amount to a requirement for prior authorization for union formation. Union registration requirements include filing charters, listing officials and their immediate families, and providing banking details to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. The law forbids unregistered unions from operating. The law also specifies that only unions that have “most representative status” (MRS)–the largest union in a workplace, provided it also represents at least 30 percent of workers in an enterprise–may represent workers in collective bargaining. Civil servants, teachers, workers employed by state-owned enterprises, and workers in the banking, health care, and informal sectors may form only “associations,” not trade unions, affording them fewer worker protections than unionized trades.
As of September the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training had issued eight sets of implementing regulations to the 2016 Law on Trade Unions; at least one more remained unissued. In July, for example, the ministry issued a regulation clarifying that all trade unions can represent their members in collective dispute resolution processes. The ministry also issued a regulation on the election of shop stewards, as well as regulations requiring unions and employer associations to submit two annual reports to their members and the ministry, one on finance and one on its activities. Many unions expressed concern they would not be able to comply with the financial reporting regulations, which require all local unions to maintain daily, weekly, and annual financial records, as well as physical copies of all receipts. Union representatives feared local chapters would not have adequate capacity to meet the requirements.
The law stipulates workers can strike only after several requirements have been met, including the successful registration of a union; the failure of other methods of dispute resolution (such as conciliation, mediation, and arbitration); completion of a 60-day waiting period following the emergence of the dispute; a secret-ballot vote of the union membership; and seven days’ advance notice to the employer and the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. Strikers are liable to criminal penalties if they block entrances or roads, or engage in any other behavior interpreted by local authorities as harmful to public order. Once a union has successfully carried out a strike vote, which requires the consent of a majority of voting members, with 50 percent of union members forming a quorum, the court may issue an injunction against the strike and require the restart of negotiations with employers.
Government enforcement of the right to association, including freedom from antiunion discrimination, and of collective bargaining rights, was highly inconsistent. Close relationships among government officials, employers, and union leaders, particularly those operating progovernment unions, limited the government’s willingness to address violations of workers’ rights. These relationships hampered the independent operation of unions, since the majority of the country’s union federations had affiliation with the ruling party, and only a minority were affiliated with opposition parties or worked independently.
The resolution of collective disputes was also inconsistent, largely due to a provision in the Law on Trade Unions that was interpreted to allow only MRS unions to represent members in collective disputes. After the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training issued a regulation in July clarifying minority unions could represent their members in collective dispute resolution procedures, the Arbitration Council–an independent body that hears and resolves collective labor disputes–resolved at least one collective dispute brought by a non-MRS union; however, some activists complained the regulation goes too far in interpreting the law, to the point of contradicting it. Prior to July the number of cases reaching the independent Arbitration Council had dropped from more than 30 per month prior to the Law on Trade Unions being passed to approximately two per month afterwards, causing many outside observers to express concerns.
Individual labor disputes may be brought before the courts, although the judicial system was neither impartial nor transparent. There is no specialized labor court. The Arbitration Council requested that the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training permit it to run a pilot project adjudicating certain types of individual disputes, although unions expressed concern the government considers collective disputes as individual disputes in order to diminish the value of union membership.
Workers reported various obstacles while trying to exercise their right to free association. There were reports of government harassment targeting independent labor leaders, including the use of spurious legal charges. Several prominent labor leaders associated with the opposition or independent unions had charges pending against them or were under court supervision; the Cambodian Labor Confederation reported at least 20 union leaders faced criminal charges.
In July the Phnom Penh municipal court dropped “breach of trust” charges against prominent labor activist Mouen Tola, which outside observers believed were politically motivated, and for which he faced a large fine and a maximum three years’ imprisonment. The court dismissed the case after an international outcry.
Reports continued of other forms of harassment; for instance police raided at least one labor advocacy NGO twice since July, reportedly searching for registration papers, tax documents, foreign worker visas, and proof of a building lease. Some unions and NGOs reported that government officials pressured their property owners to break the organization’s lease. Several unions reported harassment and intimidation from local government officials while attempting to hold routine meetings and workshops–particularly in the period preceding the July election.
Some employers reportedly refused, with impunity, to sign notification letters to recognize unions officially or to renew the short-term contract employees who had joined unions (approximately 80 percent of workers in the formal manufacturing sector were on short-term contracts). Employers and local government officials often refused to provide necessary paperwork for unions to register. Labor activists reported that many banks refused to open accounts for unregistered unions, although unions are unable by law to register until they provide banking details. Provincial-level labor authorities reportedly kept registration applications in abeyance indefinitely by requesting more materials or resubmissions due to minor errors late in the 30-day application cycle, although anecdotal evidence suggested this practice had decreased by midyear, particularly for garment and footwear sector unions. The Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Confederation (BWTUC), on the other hand, successfully registered in August on its fifth attempt, after having initially filed its application in January. As of November only 12 of its 42 local union members had been able to register.
Unionization rates varied across economic sectors. In the hospitality industry, it approached 20 percent. In the formal apparel and footwear sector, despite the great number of unions, unionization rates were estimated at only 20-30 percent. Many of these unions represented the interests of factory owners and the CPP over those of workers. In 2017 a BWTUC study showed only 9 percent of 1,010 construction workers across Phnom Penh worksites belonged to a union or association.
There were credible reports of workers dismissed on spurious grounds after organizing or participating in strikes. While the majority of strikes were illegal, participating in an illegal strike was not by itself a legally acceptable reason for dismissal. In some cases employers failed to renew the short-term contracts of active unionists; in others they pressured union personnel or strikers to accept compensation and quit. The union movement did not generally find government-sponsored remedies for these dismissals effective.
The ILO noted reports of antiunion discrimination by employers through interference with and dismissal of members of independent unions, as well as through the creation of employer-backed unions. Although the law affords protection to union leaders, many factories successfully terminated elected union officials prior to the unions’ attainment of formal registration.
The ILO-International Finance Corporation Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) program found ongoing concerns with workers’ ability to form and join unions freely, management interference with unions, and employer control of unions. The BFC’s coverage was limited to the export sector, so the actual level of union harassment was likely significantly higher, particularly in unregistered factories.
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. Officials reported particular difficulties in verifying working conditions and salaries in the informal fishing, agricultural, construction, and domestic service sectors. Legal penalties for forced labor were stringent, including imprisonment and fines.
Although the government made efforts to highlight the problem of forced labor domestically, the extent to which these efforts were effective remained unclear. Moreover, there was some evidence employers worked with local law enforcement authorities to subject workers to bonded labor, including in the brick industry. For example a 2016 report from the local human rights NGO LICADHO highlighted reports of child and bonded labor in brick kilns, including some evidence that employers used local authorities to keep workers in bonded labor. Although the government initially denied the reports and threatened to prosecute individuals for defamation if the report was proven untrue, in May the National Committee for Counter Trafficking reported it had shut down three brick factories for child labor violations and was investigating as many as 100 more.
Third-party debt remained an important issue driving forced labor. According to the findings of a BWTUC survey conducted in 2017, 48 percent of 1,010 construction workers in Phnom Penh had debts; 75 percent of the debtors owed money to microfinance or banks, and 25 percent owed money to family members.
Forced labor, usually related to overtime work, occurred in six of 395 export-sector textile and apparel factories, approximately the same rate as in 2017. Workers were required to obtain written approval from foreign supervisors before they could leave the factory and complained they feared termination if they refused to work overtime.
Children were also at risk of forced labor (see section 7.c.).
Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
The law establishes 15 years as the minimum age for employment and 18 as the minimum age for hazardous work. The law permits children between ages 12 and 15 to engage in “light work” that is not hazardous to their health and does not affect school attendance; an implementing regulation provides an exhaustive list of activities considered “heavy work.” These include agriculture, brickmaking, fishing, tobacco, and cassava production. The law limits work by children between ages 12 and 15 to a maximum of four hours on school days and seven hours on nonschool days, and it prohibits work between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. Minimum age protections do not apply to domestic workers.
The law stipulates fines of 31 to 60 times the prevailing daily base wage for persons convicted of violating the country’s child labor provisions. In 2017 the Department of Child Labor, part of the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, received funding from the government for the first time. The government appropriated 40 million riel ($10,000) for child labor enforcement operations and implementation of the National Social Protection Strategy, although none of the stakeholders involved in counter-child labor efforts believed this amount was sufficient. The department employed 33 inspectors based in Phnom Penh and one child labor inspector in each of the country’s 25 provinces. Child labor inspections were concentrated in Phnom Penh and provincial, formal-sector factories producing goods for export, rather than in rural areas where the majority of child laborers work. The department began unannounced complaints-based and follow-up inspections during the year, although these were infrequent. In 2017 the government imposed penalties on 42 occasions for child labor violations, which was significantly lower than the reported prevalence of child labor in the country.
Inadequate training limited the capacity of local authorities to enforce these regulations, especially in rural areas and high-risk sectors, and the thoroughness of inspections was questionable. For example ministry inspectors visited various brick factories in 2017 but found no child labor violations, despite numerous reports of children working in brick factories. In addition sanctions for labor violations, including those related to child labor, were rarely imposed in accordance with the law.
Children were vulnerable to involvement in the worst forms of child labor, including in agriculture, brick making, and commercial sex (also see section 6, Children). Poor access to basic education and the absence of compulsory education contributed to children’s vulnerability to exploitation. Children from impoverished families were at risk because some affluent households reportedly used humanitarian pretenses to hire children as domestic workers whom they abused and exploited. Children were also subjected to forced begging.
Child labor in export-sector garment and footwear factories declined significantly in recent years. Some analysts attributed the decline to pressure from the BFC’s mandatory remediation program. Since 2015 the BFC had found fewer than 20 child workers per year in a pool of approximately 800 factories. In its latest synthesis report for May 1, 2017-June 30, 2018, the BFC discovered 10 cases of children younger than age 15 working in factories.
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings/ .
The law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, disability, religion, political opinion, birth, social origin, or union membership. Two separate laws explicitly prohibit discrimination against HIV-positive persons. The law does not explicitly prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, age, language, or communicable disease. The constitution stipulates that citizens of either sex shall receive equal pay for equal work.
The government generally did not enforce these laws. Penalties for employment discrimination include fines, civil, and administrative remedies. Fines for workplace discrimination ranged from 2.5 to 3.6 million riels ($625 to $900).
Women and men continued to face employment discrimination in various industries. According to a BWTUC survey, daily wages for male construction workers was 20.2 percent higher than for women performing similar work. In the garment and footwear sector, the BFC reported factory management discriminated heavily against men in hiring and benefits due to perceived behavioral problems, and generally without legal consequence. The BFC reported 7 percent of export-licensed factories discriminated based on gender in their hiring decisions, while 2 percent reportedly terminated or forced pregnant women to resign.
In a January report, the BFC found that 37 factories (8 percent of the national total) had negligible discriminatory practices, 10 factories did not dismiss pregnant women, and eight factories did not discriminate against workers based on union membership.
Harassment of women was widespread. A large-scale research project conducted by Care International found that one-third of women in the garment industry suffered some form of sexual harassment in the previous 12 months. According to a BFC report in March, more than 38 percent of workers surveyed felt uncomfortable “often” or “sometimes” because of behavior in the factory, and 40 percent of workers did not believe there was a clear and fair system for reporting sexual harassment in their factory.
Prior to June the law did not mandate a minimum wage for any sector except the garment sector. The Law on the Minimum Wage passed in June expands the minimum wage to cover new sectors or the entire formal economy, although there are no time-bound requirements for the law to do so; the new provisions had not entered into effect during the year. The Law on Minimum Wage also establishes a National Minimum Wage Council with representatives from the government, unions, and employer organizations to conduct research into and provide recommendations on the minimum wage. As of November the government had not clarified how membership of the new tripartite wage body would be chosen. Informal-economy worker associations and civil society organizations criticized the law for failing to cover workers in the informal economy. The minimum wage for 2019, however, was set in October under the old Labor Advisory Council system, which sets wages only for the garment and footwear sector. The minimum wage was more than the official estimate for the poverty income level.
The law provides for a standard legal workweek of 48 hours, not to exceed eight hours per day. The law establishes a rate of 130 percent of daytime wages for nightshift work and 150 percent for overtime, which increases to 200 percent if overtime occurs at night, on Sunday, or on a holiday. Employees may work a maximum two hours of overtime per day. The law prohibits excessive overtime, states that all overtime must be voluntary, and provides for paid annual holidays. Workers in marine and air transportation are not entitled to social security and pension benefits and are exempt from limitations on work hours prescribed by law.
In June, after at least nine factories shut their doors abruptly in the first half of the year without paying more than 88 billion riel ($22 million) in wages due or required severance payments to workers, the government amended the law to eliminate severance for employees on unlimited duration contracts. Instead, the amended law requires payments equal to 15 working days’ wages, paid every six months, to all employees on unlimited duration contracts.
Workplace health and safety standards must be adequate to provide for workers’ well-being. Labor inspectors assess fines according to a complex formula based on the severity and duration of the infraction, as well as the number of workers affected. Labor ministry inspectors are empowered to assess these fines on the spot, without the necessary cooperation of police, but there are no specific provisions to protect workers who complain about unsafe or unhealthy conditions.
The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training is responsible for enforcing labor laws, but the number of labor inspectors was insufficient to conduct thorough inspections. Penalties were seldom assessed and were insufficient to address problems. The government did not effectively enforce working-hour and overtime regulations. Outside the garment industry, the government rarely enforced working-hour regulations. The government enforced standards selectively due to poorly trained staff, lack of necessary equipment, and corruption. Ministry officials admitted their inability to carry out thorough inspections on working hours and implicitly relied upon the BFC to do so in export-oriented garment factories.
Workers reported overtime was often excessive and sometimes mandatory; many complained employers forced them to work 12-hour days, although the legal limit is 10 including overtime. Workers often faced fines, dismissal, or loss of premium pay if they refused to work overtime. Workers and labor organizations raised concerns that the use of short-term contracts (locally known as fixed duration contracts) allowed firms, especially in the garment sector where productivity growth remained relatively flat, to avoid certain wage and legal requirements. Fixed duration contracts also allowed employers greater freedom to terminate the employment of union organizers and pregnant women simply by failing to renew their contracts. The law limits such contracts to a maximum of 24 months. Employers regularly hired workers on fixed duration contracts–most often of three-month duration–indefinitely. The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training interpreted the law to allow for such serial short-term contracts, provided there was some break in employment every 24 months. The Arbitration Council and the ILO disputed this interpretation of the law, noting that after 24 months, an employee must be offered a permanent “unlimited duration contract.” (Also see section 7.a.).
An April 2017 survey conducted by the BWTUC estimated there were 200,000 citizens working in the construction industry; 89 percent of 1,010 respondents did not have contracts, most never received bonuses or severance pay, and only 9 percent were enrolled with the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). Work-related injuries and health problems were common. Most large garment factories producing for markets in developed countries met relatively high health and safety standards as conditions of their contracts with buyers. Working conditions in small-scale factories and cottage industries were poor and often failed to meet international standards. The Department of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) reported 2,533 work-related injuries in the first six months of the year, up slightly from 2017; of these injuries, 444 were the result of road accidents, since employers often transported garment workers to and from work in the back of unsafe open-bed trucks.
Mass fainting remained a problem. The NSSF reported 1,350 workers fainted in 13 factories in the first six months of the year, up from 415 workers fainting in eight factories in the same period in 2017. There were no reports of serious injuries due to fainting. Observers reported excessive overtime, poor health, insufficient sleep, poor ventilation, lack of nutrition, pesticide in nearby rice paddies, and toxic fumes from the production process all contributed to mass fainting.
The BFC reported that complying with OSH standards was a growing challenge in the garment export sector largely due to improper company policies, procedures, and poorly defined supervisory roles and responsibilities. The BFC reported increased noncompliance in every OSH variable measured, including exposure to chemicals and hazardous substances, emergency preparedness, OSH management systems, welfare facilities, worker environment, worker protection, and worker accommodations.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides that all private- and public-sector workers (except members of the armed forces) have the right to form and join unions of their choice, and it provides for collective bargaining and the right to strike. The law, however, places several restrictions on these rights, and the government deployed a variety of mechanisms to undercut the rights of independent workers and unions. Minimum membership requirements for unions differ based on the type of union. Forming a company union requires a minimum of 20 workers; forming a professional, industrial, or sectoral union in one jurisdiction requires 40 workers in the same field; and forming a regional or national union requires 150 workers. Ten persons may form an employees association, a parallel type of representation the government endorsed and openly supported.
The law prohibits “any act of discrimination or interference contrary to the exercise” of workers’ right to unionize. The law requires all unions to provide the Ministry of Labor a membership roster that includes the full name, home address, telephone number, and national identification number for each union member. The ministry reviews the registration and determines whether the union fulfilled all requirements. Unions must submit their registration application by December 31 of the year the union forms; if not received by the ministry or if the ministry considers the registration unsatisfactory, the union is denied the ability to exist legally. The law also requires the presence of labor inspectors to witness and legitimize unions’ decisions before the Ministry of Labor. The International Labor Organization (ILO) raised concerns about the ministry’s refusal to register trade union organizations.
By law employers may negotiate a collective contract only with the union that represents the majority of its workers. Minority organizations may not jointly negotiate in cases where no union represents an absolute majority. The law also places a number of restrictions on unions’ ability to administer their activities. For example, the CNE has the authority to administer internal elections of labor unions, federations, and confederations. By law elections must be held at least every three years. If CNE-administered and -certified elections are not held within this period, the law prohibits union leaders from representing workers in negotiations or engaging in anything beyond administrative tasks. The ILO repeatedly found cases of interference by the CNE in trade union elections, and in 1999 it began calling for the CNE to be delinked from the union election process.
The law recognizes the right of all public- and private-sector workers to strike, subject to conditions established by law. By law workers participating in legal strikes receive immunity from prosecution, and their time in service may not be reduced by the time engaged in a strike. The law requires that employers reincorporate striking workers and provides for prison terms of six to 15 months for employers who fail to do so. Replacement workers are not permitted during legal strikes. The law prohibits striking workers from paralyzing the production or provision of essential public goods and services, but it defines “essential services” more broadly than ILO standards. The ILO called on the government to amend the law to exclude from the definition of “essential services” activities “that are not essential in the strict sense of the term…so that in no event may criminal sanctions be imposed in cases of peaceful strikes.”
The minister of labor may order public- or private-sector strikers back to work and submit their disputes to arbitration if a strike “puts in immediate danger the lives or security of all or part of the population.” Other legal provisions establish criminal penalties for exercising the right to strike in certain circumstances. For example, the law prohibits specified actions and makes punishable with five to 10 years in prison anyone who “organizes, supports, or instigates the realization of activities within security zones that are intended to disturb or affect the organization and functioning of military installations, public services, industries and basic [mining] enterprises, or the socioeconomic life of the country.” The law also provides for prison terms of two to six years and six to 10 years, respectively, for those who restrict the distribution of goods and for “those…who develop or carry out actions or omissions that impede, either directly or indirectly, the production, manufacture, import, storing, transport, distribution, and commercialization of goods.” There was no information on whether penalties were sufficient to deter violations.
The government restricted the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining through administrative and legal mechanisms.
The ILO raised concerns about violence against trade union members and government intimidation of the Associations of Commerce and Production of Venezuela. ILO member countries voted to establish an ILO Commission of Inquiry against Venezuela to investigate longstanding complaints first lodged in 2015 of labor rights violations of ILO Conventions No. 26, 87, and 144, which pertain to minimum-wage fixing, freedom of association and protection of the right to organize, and tripartite consultation, respectively. The ILO had recommended that the government allow a tripartite delegation to provide technical assistance to mediate unresolved complaints between the government, employers, and workers. The government continued to refuse access to the ILO High-Level Tripartite delegation to address complaints of labor rights violations.
Organized labor activists continued to report that the annual requirement to provide the Ministry of Labor a membership roster was onerous and infringed on freedom of association. They alleged the ministry removed member names from the rosters for political purposes, particularly if members were not registered to vote with the CNE. Labor leaders also criticized the laborious and costly administrative process of requesting CNE approval for elections and subsequent delays in the CNE’s recognition of such union processes. In addition there reportedly was a high turnover of Ministry of Labor contractors, resulting in a lack of timely follow-through on union processes. Labor unions in both the private and public sectors noted long delays in obtaining CNE concurrence to hold elections and in receiving certification of the election results, which hindered unions’ ability to bargain collectively.
The government continued to support many “parallel” unions, which sought to dilute the membership and effectiveness of traditional independent unions. In October, Labor Minister Eduardo Pinate announced the expansion of the ministry’s Youth Worker Program (Chamba Juvenil), which independent union leaders claimed was a government mechanism to displace independent workers with government-aligned workers and also to suppress wages, since youth are paid less than experienced workers. In general these government-supported unions were not subject to the same government scrutiny and requirements regarding leadership elections. The government excluded from consideration other, independent union federations, including the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, General Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, Confederation of Autonomous Unions of Venezuela, and National Union of Workers.
The government continued to refuse to adjudicate or otherwise resolve the cases of 19,000 employees of the state oil company (PDVSA) who were fired during and after the 2002-03 strike. The Ministry of Labor continued to deny registration to the National Union of Oil, Gas, Petrochemical, and Refinery Workers.
The concept of striking, demonized since the 2002 national security law, was used periodically as a political tool to accuse government opponents of coup plotting or other destabilizing activities. Some companies, especially in the public sector, had multiple unions with varying degrees of allegiance to the ruling party’s version of the “socialist revolution,” which could trigger interunion conflict and strife. In August striking regional union leaders of Corpoelec (a state-owned electricity operator) complained national union leaders failed to negotiate in good faith on behalf of striking workers demanding wage increases. Corpoelec regional union leaders alleged national union leaders were progovernment “chavistas” and therefore beholden to the government for political reasons.
In June Maduro provisionally released former University of Carabobo professor Rolman Rojas, former president of the Carabobo College of Nurses Julio Garcia, former president of Fetracarabobo Omar Escalante, and former secretary general of the National Federation of Retirees and Pensioners Omar Vasquez Lagonel but required weekly reports to a judge as a condition of their release. SEBIN detained the group in August 2017 for their participation in the national labor strike against the ANC election.
The law prohibits some forms of forced or compulsory labor but does not provide criminal penalties for certain forms of forced labor. The law prohibits human trafficking by organized crime groups through its law on organized crime, which prescribes 20 to 25 years’ imprisonment for the human trafficking of adults carried out by a member of an organized-crime group of three or more individuals. The organized-crime law, however, fails to prohibit trafficking by any individual not affiliated with such a group. Prosecutors may employ other statutes to prosecute such individuals. The law increases penalties from 25 to 30 years for child trafficking with the purpose of forced labor. There was no comprehensive information available regarding the government’s enforcement of the law. The labor group Autonomous Front in Defense of Employment, Wages, and Unions (FADESS) reported that public-sector worker agreements included provisions requiring service in the armed forces’ reserves.
There were reports of children and adults subjected to human trafficking with the purpose of forced labor, particularly in the informal economic sector and in domestic servitude (see section 7.c.). According to FADESS, more than 60,000 Cubans worked in government social programs (such as the Mission Inside the Barrio) in exchange for the government’s provision of oil resources to the Cuban government. FADESS noted Cubans worked in the Ministries of Education, Registrar, Notary, Telecommunications, and Security. FADESS also cited that the G-2 Cuban security unit was present in the armed forces and in state enterprises. Indicators of forced labor reported by some Cubans included chronic underpayment of wages, mandatory long hours, limitations on movement, and threats of retaliatory actions against workers and their families if they left the program. According to the Global Slavery Index, the estimated absolute number of victims in the country was 174,000.
The law does not sufficiently prohibit the trafficking of boys and requires proof of the use of deception, coercion, force, violence, threats, abduction, or other fraudulent means to carry out the offense of trafficking of girls, including for commercial sexual exploitation.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
The law sets the minimum employment age at 14. Children younger than 14 may work only if granted special permission by the National Institute for Minors or the Ministry of Labor. Such permission may not be granted to minors who are younger than the legal age for work in hazardous occupations that risk their life or health or could damage their intellectual or moral development. According to the ILO, the government had not made publicly available the list of specific types of work considered hazardous. Children ages 14 to 18 may not work without permission of their legal guardians or in occupations expressly prohibited by law, and they may work no more than six hours per day or 30 hours per week. Minors younger than age 18 may not work outside the normal workday.
Anyone employing children younger than age eight is subject to a prison term of between one and three years. Employers must notify authorities if they hire a minor as a domestic worker.
No information was available on whether or how many employers were sanctioned for violations. The government continued to provide services to vulnerable children, including street children, working children, and children at risk of working. There was no independent accounting of the effectiveness of these and other government-supported programs.
Most child laborers worked in the agricultural sector, street vending, domestic service, or in small and medium-size businesses, most frequently in family-run operations. There continued to be isolated reports of children exploited in domestic servitude, mining, forced begging, and commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6).
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings/ .
The constitution prohibits employment discrimination for every citizen. The law prohibits discrimination based on age, race, sex, social condition, creed, marital status, union affiliation, political views, nationality, disability, or any condition that could be used to lessen the principle of equality before the law. No law specifically prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV/AIDS status. Media and NGOs, such as PROVEA and the Human Rights Center at the Andres Bello Catholic University, reported the government had a very limited capacity to address complaints and enforce the law in some cases and lacked political will in some cases of active discrimination based on political motivations.
Nominal wages increased 43,273 percent through the first nine months of the year, but accumulated inflation over the same period reached 81,043 percent, according to a monthly study conducted by the National Assembly Finance Committee, which conducted its work without official Central Bank data.
In January workers in the health, petroleum, transportation, and electricity began holding protests, work stoppages, and strikes denouncing “hunger salaries”–wages insufficient to afford the basic food basket and unable to keep pace with hyperinflation. Additionally, they decried the lack of adequate equipment, supplies, and safe working conditions. Emblematic was the nurses’ strike, which began in June and continued as of October. Nurses demanded a salary increase on par with those of military officials: Nurses earned 2.2 million, compared with military officials earning 240 million bolivares, a 100-fold salary disparity. Striking nurses also demanded hospital supplies and medicines to counteract severe shortages, rendering them unable to provide adequate patient care. In response President Maduro unilaterally issued a decree in August raising the national minimum wage to 1,800 bolivares soberanos ($11), a 60-fold increase from the previous minimum wage. Labor experts noted the unilateral nature of the decision countered ILO Convention No. 26 requiring the government to consult with employers and workers prior to enacting wage increases. Legislators noted the decree violated the law, since it supplanted collective bargaining agreements. Union leaders from the petroleum, health, telecommunications, and electricity sectors highlighted that the decree did not include wage adjustments to keep up with hyperinflation and thus remained insufficient to afford the basic food basket. It also violated the law by nullifying previously signed collective bargaining agreements, including wage tables that scaled salaries accounting for seniority and merit pay.
The president of CONINDUSTRIA, the trade union of the industrial sector, stated that of the 15,000 industries existing in 2000, only 3,500 remained as of October.
The law sets the workweek at 40 hours (35 hours for a night shift). The law establishes separate limits for “shift workers,” who may not work more than an average of 42 hours per week during an eight-week period, with overtime capped at 100 hours annually. Managers are prohibited from obligating employees to work additional time, and workers have the right to two consecutive days off each week. Overtime is paid at a 50 percent surcharge if a labor inspector approves the overtime in advance and at a 100 percent surcharge if an inspector does not give advance permission. The law establishes that, after completing one year with an employer, a worker has a right to 15 days of paid vacation annually. A worker has the right to an additional day for every additional year of service, for a maximum of 15 additional days annually.
The law provides for secure, hygienic, and adequate working conditions. Workplaces must maintain “protection for the health and life of the workers against all dangerous working conditions.” The law obligates employers to pay workers specified amounts for workplace injuries or occupational illnesses, ranging from two times the daily salary for missed workdays to several years’ salary for permanent injuries. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.
The law covers all workers, including temporary, occasional, and domestic workers. There was reportedly some enforcement by the Ministry of Labor of minimum wage rates and hours of work provisions in the formal sector, but 40 percent of the population worked in the informal sector, where labor laws and protections generally were not enforced. The government did not enforce legal protections on safety in the public sector. According to PROVEA, while the National Institute for Prevention, Health, and Labor Security required many private businesses to correct dangerous labor conditions, the government did not enforce such standards in a similar manner in state enterprises and entities. There was no publicly available information regarding the number of inspectors or the frequency of inspections to implement health and safety, minimum wage, or hours of work provisions. Ministry inspectors seldom closed unsafe job sites. There was no information on whether penalties were sufficient to deter violations.
Official statistics regarding workplace deaths and injuries were not publicly available.