Bolivia: Morales Faces First Workers Protests

(IPS) Strikes and demonstrations against the Bolivian government’s wage policy have marked the end of a honeymoon period between workers and leftwing President Evo Morales.

The government capped general wage hikes at five percent, and at three percent for the police and armed forces. It also raised the national minimum wage by five percent to 679 Bolivian pesos (96 dollars) a month, 32 pesos higher than in 2009.

Tuesday’s demonstration by industrial workers in La Paz was accompanied by a 24-hour strike by teachers, public health workers and miners, while the wives of rank and file policemen went on hunger strike in protest at the meagre wage increase which, they say, does not compensate for lost purchasing power.

Peaceful marches were held, simultaneously, in other cities.

The strikes and demonstrations, organised by a dissident group of leaders of the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), the chief trade union federation in Bolivia, is the first such protest against Morales since he began his first presidential term in January 2006.

It has brought to light a split in the main union federation as well as a rejection of the authority of COB executive secretary Pedro Montes, a miner, accused by one faction in the union of betraying the workers’ struggle by aligning himself with the government.

When factory workers protesting the wage policy surrounded the seat of government, one person was injured by a dynamite charge set off at the doors of the Labour Ministry, and at least 15 people were arrested in the disturbances.

From his office, Economy and Finance Minister Luis Arce defended the wage increase, which is the lowest since Morales became president. He argued that it is well above the 2009 inflation rate, which was 0.26 percent according to the state National Institute of Statistics.

Arce said health workers’ demands are excessive: they want wage increases of up to 26 percent to offset the hike in food prices.

Morales raised wages by 13.7 percent in 2006, his first year as president, and maintained an annual average wage increase of 8.7 percent until last year, when the raise was 14 percent, according to the non-governmental Centre for Labour and Agrarian Development Studies (CEDLA).

“Workers are profoundly disenchanted because their expectations of change have not been met, the more so when labour organisations have negotiatied agreements over pensions, job creation and worker protection that have not been fulfilled (by the government),” CEDLA analyst Bruno Rojas told IPS.

“No changes have occurred in the last four years. The promised revival of production has not happened, so tax revenue has not risen and new jobs have not been created in the natural gas, mining, agriculture or forestry industries. We cannot remain silent,” the executive secretary of the Bolivian miners’ union federation, Guido Midma, told IPS.

Sixty percent of workers earn wages below the cost of the basic basket of goods for a family of five, estimated at 1,288 Bolivian pesos (182 dollars) for food alone, not including health care, transport, housing and other expenses, said Rojas.

CEDLA’s statistics distinguish between nominal wage increases, expressed in cash terms, and real wage increases, which reflect purchasing power by comparing wage hikes with price increases.

Between 2006 and 2009, the average increase in the real minimum wage was barely 1.4 percent, and the government proposal of a nominal increase of five percent in the minimum wage in 2010 means a real average annual increase in the minimum wage of only 2.3 percent, according to a CEDLA study published May 1.

“The wage increase is miserable, even more so when the government is siding with the business community at a time when international mineral prices are on the rise. The government is forcing workers into exploitation and slavery,” said Midma.

But the government has decided to set aside nearly 1.8 billion dollars for public spending, a sizeable sum for a country with a GDP of 17 billion dollars a year.

The police are also in conflict with the government over wages. A score of wives of low-ranking police officers are holding a hunger strike to protest the three percent increase announced by the government for police and military wages.

Police patrolmen earn 1,000 Bolivian pesos (142 dollars) a month, and many are posted a long distance from their homes, which causes family break-up and forces police officers to live in conditions of extreme poverty, the hunger strikers said.

Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti, a former human rights activist, warned about possible protests and strikes, although police and troops are forbidden to take such action.