Cuba preparing for extensive job cuts

Cuba is calling workers across the island to special meetings so that labour leaders can brief them on half a million government layoffs coming in the next six months and suggest ways that those fired can make a living.

The “workers’ assemblies” that began on September 15 include hundreds of meetings with state employees in union halls, government auditoriums and even basements or garages of state-run companies, according to reports in the state-run labour union newspaper Trabajadores.

The proceedings are closed and those attending so far have been tight-lipped about what is being discussed.

But Salvador Valdes Mesa, head of the nearly three million-member Cuban Workers Confederation, said they are designed to tell workers about “the labour policies that will govern the country in order to achieve the structural changes the economy needs”.

“We are confronting the need to make our economy more efficient, better organise production, increase worker productivity and identify the reserves we have,” Mr Valdes Mesa was quoted as telling a weekend gathering of transportation and port employees.

Two separate stories in Trabajadores, or Workers, quoted Mr Mesa Valdes at a conference in Havana as well as addressing a similar group of state employees in the eastern province of Holguin, making it tough to tell where exactly his quotes were made.

Cuba announced on September 13 that it would lay off 500,000 workers by March and loosen state controls on private enterprise so that many of those fired can find new jobs.

It said it would also beef up the tax code and revamp state pay scales to better reward high job performance.

President Raul Castro warned in April that as many as one million Cuban state employees – a fifth of a total island work force of 5.1 million – may be superfluous. In a subsequent speech in August, he warned job cuts were coming.

Trabajadores quoted Mr Valdes Mesa as saying that “a political process of reflection and analysis with the workers in the assemblies is already under way to study and debate” past Raul Castro speeches, including the one in August.

During such meetings, Cuban workers generally are asked to endorse what reforms the government plans – sometimes there are votes by cheers and sometimes by a show of hands.

For example, state employees gathered in special meetings in 2008 to discuss a parliamentary proposal to raise Cuba’s retirement age, and officially 99.1% of attendees supported the measure.

In this case, employee layoffs will be supported by some of the very Cubans who may lose their jobs.

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