It’s the kind of story that sounds so far-fetched you think it must be your crazy aunt from El Cafetal exaggerating. But no, we didn’t read it in a WhatsApp cadena, we read it in the Gaceta Oficial (N° 40.950 of July 22, 2016):

Resolución Nro. 9855, mediante la cual se establece un régimen laboral transitorio de carácter obligatorio y estratégico para todas las entidades de trabajo del país públicas, privadas, de propiedad social y mixtas, que contribuya con el reimpulso productivo del sector agroalimentario, estableciendo mecanismo de inserción temporal de trabajadores y trabajadoras en aquellas entidades objeto de medidas especiales implementadas para fortalecer su producción.

That tongue-twister is not actually understandable enough to translate properly, but here’s our go:

Resolution #9855, through which a transitory labor regime is established that is mandatory and strategic for all workplaces in the country, public, private, and of social and mixed property, to contribute to the productive relaunch of the agri-food sector, establishing mechanisms for the temporary insertion of workers in those entities that are the object of special measures implemented to strengthen production.

Our confusion turned into deep concern as we started to untangle the text of the resolution. It’s murky, yes, but it seems to be aimed at creating a temporary mechanism to forcibly send workers on secondment into the agriculture and food sector.

Which workers, exactly?

According to articles 2 and 4, it applies to all workers, whether in the public or private sector,  who are in suitable physical conditions or who have relevant knowledge.

In other words: if you are physically and mentally able to work in the fields, the government can ask —or better yet, order— your company to send you to work out there.

And just to be clear on the obligatory nature of the resolution, article 3 states that public and private sector businesses “are obliged to comply with the strict rule of this administrative act”.

Though the resolution sets the conditions for payment and social protection of workers, it leaves many unanswered questions: how will workers be selected? How will workers express their will to undertake the secondment? What are the penalties for not complying? How will the worker or business owner know they are not complying? What are the tax risks and consequences?

And lurking behind it all, a dark suspicion: isn’t this a recipe for forced labour?

According to Article 2 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Forced Labour Convention of 1930 (No. 29): “forced or compulsory labour shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

We wish we could say with confidence this will not turn into a Myanmar-style system of Forced Labour, but we know who we’re dealing with. It’s disturbing to realize this is the path Maduro’s’ administration -or is it Padrino López’s?-  has decided to take. However, it’s not surprising.

A couple of days back, an agricultural engineer turned cab driver told us he wouldn’t consider going back to the farm because “they” (the Government) had destroyed everything and mafias were charging more in protection money than he could ever afford to pay. For him to go back to the farm, he said, things would have to change.

“They” —the Government— keep talking about their willingness to work with the private sector, but they do nothing to regain our trust. Forcing workers into the agri-food businesses seems like… well…  las últimas patadas de un ahogado.

In any case, Venezuela’s government is pushing the envelope and might be on its way to joining the likes of Burma and Qatar in the dark arts of forced labour. The human rights implications of the practice are ghastly. Take ”ethnic Rakhine civilians were forced to dig graves and carry supplies for Burma Army forcesor workers at Khalifa International Stadium [flagship World Cup 2022 stadium] are forced to live in squalid accommodation, pay huge recruitment fees and have had wages withheld and passports confiscated”.

According to endslaverynow.org, there are “at least 2.2 million people worldwide in state-imposed forms of forced labor”. Let’s hope we don’t bulk up this number.

Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.