MANAGUA – After 16 years of working as a taxman for the State Revenue Agency (DGI), José Tomás Gómez arrived at work one day to find a memo on his desk informing him that he was fired due to “structural reorganization.” He had one hour to clean out his desk and leave.
Gómez, a serious man who took punctual pride in his job as a tax-collection instructor, demanded to know on what legal grounds he was being released. He insists he had never done anything to justify being fired, though he acknowledges he probably upset his employer by refusing to attend Sandinista rallies and protests convoked by party organizers within the DGI office.
Gómez said the Sandinista “spies” working in his office took note of his absence from party rallies. But he didn’t care because no employer can legally force state employees to participate in partisan activities. Or so he thought.
“I’ve always been apolitical and no other government – not even (former dictator Anastasio) Somoza – obligated me to march or protest,” Gómez, 58, told The Nica Times.
But when it came to providing an official justification for his firing, the DGI remained silent. Adding insult to injury, Gómez was denied his severance pay and social benefits, which, according to his salary and years working for the state, came out to $25,000.
That was three years ago. Since then, two judges have ruled in Gómez’s favor, issuing court orders demanding that the DGI pay him his due severance for being arbitrarily fired. And another judge ruled in Gómez’s favor when DGI director Walter Porras sued him for “slander and injuries” for suggesting the state office was violating its contractual obligations.
Out of work, broke from spending his limited savings on lawyers’ fees, and ineligible for a state pension, Gómez – armed with his court orders and an untiring desire to set things right – continues to fight the system.
“This is totally unjust; the level of corruption in this government is abysmal and there is a total disrespect for the laws and the Constitution,” Gómez said. “The problem is the president acts that way so his subordinates do too. That’s the example they see.”
Gómez is not alone. Since the Sandinistas returned to power four years ago, 794 DGI employees have been fired “illegally and without due process,” according to Dr. Alvaro Leiva, secretary of labor affairs for the Democratic Federation of Public Sector Workers (Fedetrasep).
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Since 2007, a whopping 21,033 state workers (almost 18 percent of all civil service employees) have been fired without justification or due process, Leiva said. In most cases, the workers were laid off without explanation in apparent acts of political discrimination or retaliation, the labor activist said.
Leiva says the ruling party has also used its position of state power to “decapitate” 116 unions that didn’t toe the Sandinistas’ party line. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Labor reported that it approved 100 new Sandinista-affiliated unions last year, in what appears to be part of President Daniel Ortega’s stated goal of creating a one-party system in Nicaragua (NT, June 18, 2010).
“This government says it is Christian, socialist and in solidarity [with the poor], but where is the evidence of that?” Leiva said in an interview. “What we see is a witch hunt, discrimination and persecution of state workers who do not share their same political ideology.”
Leiva added, “They have turned back the clock to an 18th century slave state. Workers who refuse to participate in government rallies or refuse to join the party organizations that pay for those mobilizations are fired and repressed in violation of their labor rights on a national and international level.”
Applicants who seek work in state institutions are also discovering that they need “letters of recommendation” from their local Sandinista secretary or the head of their neighborhood Council of Citizen Power (CPC) to even be considered for the job.
In addition to being illegal, the massive layoffs are also costly and irresponsible, Leiva said. By arbitrarily firing more than 21,000 workers – many of whom received memos notifying them that they are fired, or simply get locked out of their offices one day – the state has racked up a debt of more than $30 million in unpaid severance packages and social security payments, the lawyer said.
Under the Labor Code, employers are required to pay workers an extra month’s salary for each year that they have been employed. Some public employees have collective bargaining agreements requiring the state to pay them up to 10 months of extra salary in the event they are fired.
But in addition to losing money due to massive layoffs, the state is also throwing away valuable human resources, including professionals such as Gómez, who have received extensive international training and brought a whole career’s worth of experience to the job.
The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) is looking into more than 300 cases of elderly state workers who have been “forcibly retired” at the age of 60 without severance packages.
“The state is going backwards in terms of its technical and professional capacity,” Leiva said. “All these human resources have been thrown in the garbage along with all the efforts and assistance from friendly countries who have offered years of technical training programs to help us develop our country better.”
The Sandinista ‘Broom’
The Ortega administration is not the first to enter office with a push-broom and long coattails.
In fact, for as long as Nicaragua has had a system of democratically alternating governments, it has maintained the return-to-zero political culture of “out with the old, in with the new” (known here as Quítate vos, pa’ ponerme yo).
Many Sandinistas were purged from government jobs when President Violeta Chamorro took office in 1990. Subsequent Presidents Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños continued the practice of political cleansing practice, despite representing the same party.
While in the opposition, Sandinista lawmakers were among the most vocal proponents for the Civil Service Law, which took effect in 2004. But once in power, the Sandinistas have mostly ignored the law and continued the same practice of political house-cleaning, Leiva said.
According to labor rights advocate Carlos Guadamuz, a lawyer with CENIDH, the massive state layoffs is a combination of “political revenge” and a desire to stack public institutions with party loyalists who are going to “support everything the director does.”
“The governments change their political flags, but it’s the same lack of institutionalism and judicial security,” he said. “And those who suffer the most are the workers.”
Leiva, meanwhile, says the Sandinista purge has been “incomparably” worse than that of previous administrations.
Where’s the Labor Ministry?
According to the workers’ rights activists, the Ministry of Labor has failed to protect state employees and been completely non-responsive to labor complaints filed against state institutions.
Guadamuz says the Ministry of Labor has “abandoned its duties to protect state workers.”
Leiva is even more critical, saying the state office is an “accomplice” because the Labor Ministry itself has illegally fired 91 employees over the past four years.
The problem, according to human-rights watchdog groups, is that the Ministry of Labor is focusing its regulatory efforts on free-trade zones, but paying less attention to labor conditions and abuses in other productive sectors, such as agriculture, fisheries, industrial manufacturing and the state.
Meanwhile, the 80 percent of the population that works in the informal sector is completely unprotected and uninsured.
But when Nicaragua’s human rights organizations have tried to meet with the Ministry of Labor to address these concerns, they’ve gotten the same response as the laid-off workers: closed doors and government silence.
The Nica Times earlier this month requested an interview with Labor Minister Jeannette Chávez, but never received a response. Nor did The Nica Times receive any response to a request for basic information and state employment statistics from the ministry’s ironically named “Office of Access to Public Information.”
Yet in a recent interview with the Sandinistas state media arm, Chávez was uncharacteristically chatty when talking about the ministry’s efforts to attract more investment and jobs in free-trade zone factories, a “maquiladora” model that the Sandinistas once criticized as a form of “savage capitalism.”
“I would say that the free-trade zones that we have now are nothing like the ones that were here in 2007,” Chávez gushed. “From the amount of labor complaints, to level of salaries, the [maquilas] are nothing like they were before. I think that this government, led by President Ortega, has restored workers’ rights and protected and defended the working class.”
Chávez, however, went on to admit that the salaries paid Nicaraguan factory workers are still the lowest in Central America.
Despite several raises to minimum wage over the years, Guadamuz says most factory workers still earn salaries that are less than 50 percent the cost of the “canasta básica” – 23 basic products needed for subsistence living.
Unable to get a response from government authorities, Leiva said he his workers’ federation is going to file a complaint next week before the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva, Switzerland, as well as take their case to international labor-rights’ groups in the U.S. and Europe.
Plus, he said, Fedestrasep is preparing 10 different legal cases against the government for various labor violations.
In Nicaragua, he said, the former state workers are going to start to put pressure on the government in terms they understand best: street protests.
In the coming weeks, Gómez, the former tax collector, and thousands of other ex-state workers are organizing to take to the streets in a series of marches and demonstrations in front of state offices.
It’s not exactly how Gómez planned to spend his early retirement, but it’s something he feels he needs to do in order to protect his right to a proper retirement later on.
“All I want is for the government to pay me the money they owe me,” he said.