On November 17th, last year, workers at SIDOR —the giant state-owned steel-mill in the southeast of Venezuela— took the streets in a strike. Y’know, the usual. However, this particular protest has a number of plot twists that shine a light on just how bizarre labor relations in Guayana have gotten.

these workers were demanding…iPhones. Yes, iPhones. And laptops. And other shiny high-end gadgets that had been promised as Christmas presents for their kids.

Plot twist one: higher wages? better hours? Nope: these workers were demanding…iPhones. Yes, iPhones. And laptops. And other shiny high-end gadgets that had been promised as Christmas presents for their kids. The deadbeat company was offering them only money. The Union’s Toy Committee (yes, that’s a real thing) said no: money is useless in Guayana.

Plot twist two: the plant is already working at less than 10% its capacity, so if they weren’t striking they wouldn’t be doing much.

Plot twist three: they’re employed by SIDOR, but they weren’t protesting at SIDOR. They were protesting at CVG, the holding company that hands down the payments from PDVSA. These guys know how the copper is beaten.

The road to hell

It all started with the expropriation of Guayana’s ‘basic industries’ —the sprawling mess of mining and metalworking concerns the government built in the 70s, privatized in the 90s and then re-seized during Chávez’s Exprópiese phase. Well, that together with the 2012 labor law (the infamous Ley Orgánica del Trabajo, los Trabajadores, las Trabajadoras y los Tres Tristes Tigres que comen Trigo en un Trigal). Just as a populist state was taking ownership over the basic industries, LOTTTTTTTT shifted all the power from the horrible, exploitative employers to the heroic workers, all in nice communist fashion.  

Workers are entirely within their right to demand better conditions, of course. But in the normal world of industrial relations, they expect a bit of pushback. Guayana today is a showcase in what happens when the company just won’t push back: you end up with the unions shooting penalties at an open goal.

Workers started skipping weekdays to do their work duties on the weekends so they could charge the overtime fees on top of their normal salaries. Some didn’t show up at all, or when they did, it was only to make sancocho and parrilla or watch porn on the company’s wifi. Workers competed for the infamous ‘double shift’: de 7 a 11 y de 11 a 7 (straight from 7pm to 7am: steel-mills have to run around the clock) just to go to sleep under their desks.

Hyperpaternalistism. Eventually the workers fully internalized that the company had to pay them, not because of they’ve earned it, but because it was their right, and they wouldn’t get fired because father Chávez understands the plight of the worker or whatever.

As long as those sweet petrodollar checks from PDVSA kept coming, SIDOR and the rest of the Guayana state-owned enterprises could just coast on this “business model”. Many private ones didn’t last.

“Daddy, where’s my flat-screen TV?”

Company Christmas gifts for the worker’s kids has always been a thing in Guayana, just one of the many perks of working in one of the Basic Industries. There’s been a bit of a clientelism arms race at play here. First it was balloons, then bicycles, eventually it became Playstations, laptops, flat-screen TVs and smartphones. When oil was at $114 a barrel, it seemed normal.

Fast forward to that protest scene last week and things got a little bit awkward. The bonanza petrolera is long gone; the malandros took over the labor unions (who can forget the lovely cow tongues that were hammered in a tree back in 2012 to prevent workers from complaining?) and no one actually works at SIDOR anymore.

Still, workers are protesting for their kids’ toys: one of those iPhones equals roughly 15 times their monthly income.

The play is obvious: they want to sell them to buy more important things. They don’t care if the company isn’t producing a dime, or that they haven’t worked a day in the last year, those were the toys their kids picked, and they wouldn’t want to shatter their dreams. Oh, and also because all the other PDVSA-dependent companies received cool gifts too.

how was SIDOR supposed to get the dollars to import toys when the company’s basically bankrupt?

Carlos’ neighbor has the biggest TV he has ever seen (people are selling them in Mercado Libre. They’re the Samsung ones). It pairs nicely with the Cadivi-bought Wii U (remember the cupo electrónico?).

His other neighbor from Bauxilum, which gets a similar deal, got the shiny high end laptop and a PS4.

“We’re keeping the laptop;” he told us recently. “The kids can use it to do the homework and it’s way better than the canaimita. But we will sell the Play Cuatro. We’re not gonna spend a quincena in a single game.”

And then comes the moment when the journalist, inevitably, becomes part of the story. 

“Chamo,” he says, looking hopeful “do you know how to put things on mercadolibre?” It’s our #TropicalMierda version of Craig’s List. “Could you help us out with that? We could use the money, sabes cómo está la cosa.”

For SIDOR, the PDVSA checks have stopped coming, though, and they just can’t afford that many goodies. In desperation, the company ended up giving Bs.300,000 –eleven monthly minimum wages- per kid’s worker to each of the 15,000 or so people directly employed at SIDOR. That only angered them further, it’s way less than the other companies. Still, how was SIDOR supposed to get the dollars to import toys when the company’s basically bankrupt?

That was Christmas time, but this year the protests will start again, most likely over the health benefits that have been intermittent since February last year. This isn’t as frivolous, but it’s the same dilemma: the company can’t afford it, because the company doesn’t have any damn income. The palanquilla mill has been stopped since September, the planchones mill stopped production on January 6, and the pellas steelwork is working at less than 50% its capacity. “Workers” (and you need the scare quotes, because most of them don’t actually do any work) are trying to squeeze blood out of a stone.

The government will most likely keep paying them with made-up freshly-printed money, feeding inflation further. But the entire set-up is a fiction: a grotesque facsimile of a labour relation that fools nobody.

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