Venezuela contemplates forced labor in the fields to deal with food shortages

Borrowing a page from the failed policies of centralized governments, Venezuela's government is apparently planning to forcibly reassign some people from the private sector to work in state-run farms.

The Labor Ministry this week quietly issued a decree that enables state-run firms to pluck qualified workers from private companies and employ them in government agricultural projects as part of a desperate import-substitution plan aimed at regaining “food sovereignty.”

If implemented, the decree would force companies to cede their workers to state-run farms and food producing facilities for periods of up to 120 days.


The radical move comes as Venezuela's government struggles to cope with worsening food shortages that have people lining up outside supermarkets for hours in hopes of buying whatever basic products are left on the shelves.

President Nicolas Maduro pretends to be interested in farming
Nicolas Maduros' Facebook

The idea of forced job relocation was rejected by business groups and labor unions who argue it would be a grave violation of human rights.

“You can't tell a Venezuelan worker that you've hired him for one job, and then suddenly send him to work for a government company somewhere else,” Francisco Martinez, the president of Venezuelan business owners group FEDECAMARAS, told Fusion.


“These types of actions represent a grave danger to the historical and cultural gains that workers have won over the centuries,” added Froilan Barrios, the president of the FADESS labor movement.

The decree, which was published Tuesday in the government's official gazette, says that workers who get reassigned to state-run facilities will be paid the same salary they had at their previous job, only their pay would come from the government instead. The decree says that when workers complete their temporary reassignments, they are guaranteed the right to return to their previous jobs.


Business leaders say the policy would hurt productivity because companies would have to pay for the costs of recruiting and training new workers, while their most qualified staff are on loan to the government.

“This is contradictory and counterproductive,” argues Martinez, the FEDECAMARAS president.


According to Martinez, plans to forcibly borrow private sector workers are the latest sign that the nationalization of agricultural companies has not worked in Venezuela.

Under the government of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela nationalized hundreds of private companies in a push to improve the country's economic self-sufficiency while taking government control over “strategic” sectors of the economy.


Sugar mills, rice plants and large cattle ranches were among the properties seized by the government. More than 7.4 million acres of land —an area the size of Belgium—were also deemed unproductive and seized.

But those policies seem to have done little to improve agricultural productivity in the country. On the contrary, agricultural production has plunged significantly since 2008. According to a study conducted by Venezuelan economist Alejandro Gutierrez, corn production in Venezuela fell from 108 kg per person in 2008 to 63,9 in 2014, while sugar cane went from 348 kg per capita to under 197 kg in the same period. The overall value of agricultural goods produced in Venezuela has fallen 25% in that time.


Martinez says that if Venezuela wants to make more food it should forget about forcibly relocating workers and instead lift government price controls that have diminished the incentive for local businesses to produce food.

“We've gone through land confiscations, factory confiscations, the confiscation of raw materials and the confiscation of goods, and now they also want to confiscate our workers,” Martinez said. “The government has to unleash the national economy, and release it from the straightjacket it has put it in.”


Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.

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