Interview with Minister for Employment Jeanette Chávez

Tortilla con Sal, July 28th 2011

TcS : Has ALBA increased employment in Nicaragua?

Ministra Jeanette Chávez: The figures we have make us think that what has been happening in Nicaragua is that unemployment has fallen and that in general employment has been growing, most fundamentally for women.

The ALBA projects have led tot he implementation of a series of economic and productive programmes that have had direct repercussions in the population, generating employment, creating jobs and we can mention for example the Productive Food Bonus also know in our country as Zero Hunger. This is a programme which has created employment for more 60,000 rural women.

We want to stress this because this programme has had an impact in rural areas and in the lives of  rural women who had no kind of paid work and who today, thanks to this programme and the transfer of resources that has taken place, are women who are productive, increasing the country's wealth but above all bringing food and well being to rural families.

And it has not just affected their own direct employment but also that of their families because the family shares in looking after the animals, in food production and its sale and so that is an example of what is taking place in relation to employment.

I'd also say that in urban areas programmes like Zero Usury, which consist of micro-loans extended to women heads of households they can start a small business. And these were unemployed women who today in practice have paid work, have a small business and are feeding and creating well being for their families.

Programmes like Housing with Dignity or Roofs for Houses with Dignity are programmes that speed up or more correctly generate activity in the country's economy because people look for someone to make that roof. Then people live in better conditions and if they are working from home they have better conditions to develop that work and also are in conditions with more dignity for their families.

I think ALBA, really we should say the Peoples' ALBA, has brought only benefits to people in Nicaragua because as well as increasing employment for us it has given us dignity as human beings. We think and feel that our people are hard working and to the degree that these ALBA supported programmes are reaching them, people have access to work with dignity, that gives them dignity as people and also to their families.

TcS : The impression is that ALBA has provoked a multiplier effect....

Jeanette Chávez: To the extent that there is more production and investment – and the ALBA investment projects are fundamental – that has also made employment creation more dynamic.

In Nicaragua, before we had these projects, there really were high unemployment levels. So to the extent that the ALBA programmes have been implemented along with programmes promoted by the government itself, then to that same extent unemployment levels have been falling and employment levels have been rising.

Let me give you a statistic. We have clear figures that we get from the Nicaragan Institute for Information on Development which has precise data. In Nicaragua since 2007 325,000 jobs have been created up until May this year.That's the figure we have. This means that the unemployment rate has fallen. But we can also say that formal salaried employment in Nicaragua of workers registered for social security has increased.

In 2007, we had in Nicaragua 420,000 people paying social security contributions adn today we are talking about 592,000. And that has to do with the productive dynamic, the generation of work and employment that the ALBA progammes have had in practice in Nicaragua. To give you another figure, we are exporting record amounts of meat, both as live cattle and in the form of special cuts that are being sent to Venezuela.

And now we are talking about exporting chicken. That means we have making the economy more dynamic since we embarked on these ALBA programme and since Venezuela is purchasing far more exports from us.

TcS : What impact will projects like the refinery and the agro-industrial projects have?

Jeannette Chávez:The refinery called the Supreme Idea of Bolivar is going to be really important adn will very likely produce about 4000 direct jobs. And if we are talking about 4000 jobs directly we reckon we can multiply that by 5 which means in terms of indirect employment we should reach around 20,000 secure jobs resulting from the installation and operation of the refinery.

If we are look at the production from the agro-industrial sector, milk processing plants for example then currently we count more or less one million jobs in the rural economy. That means that as a result of these agro-industrial projects linked to the dairy or beef industry we could be talking about another 300,000 more jobs in rural areas linked to this type of project.

That means that if at any given moment the open unemployment rate in Nicaragua is at around 6.5% or 7% we might be able to get that figure down to 2%. And the impact of that on people would be felt immediately. And that's what we're aiming at with the projects and programmes of this government.

TcS : Do you think ALBA can be credited with helping the recovery of the cooperative sector?

Jeanette Chávez: There's a very interesting figure to do with this. I've been directly involved with the cooperative movement. In 2007 when Comandante Ortega took office again, we found 8000 cooperatives registered in the Employment Ministry records. So one of the tasks we had to carry out was to confirm those records, how far they were accurate in practice or whether they were just artificial numbers and those cooperatives did not in fact exist.

And we found to our great surprise that when we went to confirm if those cooperatives existed or not we discovered that only 1200 of those cooperatives still existed. Those 8000 were what the Revolution had left in 1990 after having given the cooperative movement a significant boost. And with the establishment of neoliberal policies the cooperative movement was wiped out. It had been made to disappear through lack of credit and the loss of the land of the cooperatives' members.

So at the end of 2007 with a new Cooperative Law, the Institute for the Development of Cooperatives was created, called INFOCOOP, and the Employment Ministry has a permanent presence in INFOCOOP with a seat on the executive board. We started with those 1200 cooperatives which were what really existed and at the close of 2010 we had 3,500 cooperatives up to date and fully legal.

That gives you some idea of how in a process that has taken three years there has been a recovery and a newly invigorated energy in the cooperative movement, but most of all in the rural cooperative movement, in the agricultural cooperatives and of those 3500 cooperatives at least 330 are women's cooperatives. That gives you an idea of what the recovery of the cooperative movement has meant and the significance of the support that the ALBA programmes and the government programmes have been giving.

The cooperative movement needs to recover once more what it was up until 1990, a powerful movement of small and medium sized producers working as partners in their cooperatives and especially the women's cooperatives involved in rural production, These are real figures, not invented ones. These are formally legalized cooperatives. And there have been very large cooperative assemblies. One can see concretely how the cooperative movement in this country is recovering.

TcS : Do you have any general observations on the issue of employment in Nicaragua?

Jeanette Chávez: We want to demystify what is being said about the issue of employment in Nicaragua, that employment is stagnant here: Because what the right wing economists insist on referring to is formal salaried employment. In Nicaragua, with an economy like ours based mainly on small and medium sized businesses, we are not only dealing with formal salaried employment which is being created by all the various projects, we are also dealing with what we call small working businesses.

That is to say people working on their own account as a result of programmes being promoted by the government, small productive economic activities that are encouraging the small business capacity of our people and which people are developing so as to have an income and a way of improving their well being, what we refer to as the common good. That shared social responsibility where all of us, employers, workers and government are committed to building this revolutionary project in Nicaragua which our government of reconciliation and national unity is promoting.

We are moving ahead. ALBA's help has been decisive for us. ALBA in practice is the waking up or our peoples and in Nicaragua that is being made a reality and that link to our Bolivarian sisters and brothers is decisive in enabling this leap forward so our people have a better future.

TcS : Has ALBA had any effect on emigration?

Jeannette Chávez: We do have some concrete signs showing us that in some sectors emigration is declining. In 2007 among those going to Costa Rica to take part in the coffee sugar cane and melon harvest there, about 5000 Nicaraguans visited the Employment Ministry so we could accompany them in the process of getting visas and safe conducts and getting contracts duly reviewed by the Employment Ministry.

As we have made progress negotiating the minimum wage via the Minimum Wage Commission which the Employment Ministry heads, seeking to increase the minimum wage we've tried to ensure that progress on the minimum wage also benefits the minimum payments made to coffee harvesters

One example is that at the start of 2007 the average minimum wage in Nicaragua was 1400 córdobas (tr. about US$68) By February 2011, the minimum wage in Nicaragua was 3000 córdobas. In other words, we have more than doubled the minimum wage now. The same has happened in relation to the coffee harvest. We have worked persistently with the coffee workers.

And the coffee workers were  telling us in 2007, “I'm off to Costa Rica because they pay better than here in Nicaragua.” In Nicaragua in 2007 the measure of coffee picked for export was US$0.57 cents. While in Costa Rica it was US$1.20.

So we began to work on increasing that minimum payment. Today, taking into account the value of the meals workers receive, the measure of export coffee iN Nicaragua is paid at US$1.52 and in Costa Rica at US$1.50. So a moment arrived in which our minimum wage policy has given us results and encouraged workers not to head off to Costa Rica but to stay picking coffee in Nicaragua.

We visited coffee plantations last December and were talking to producers who told us that they no longer have problems recruiting labour. Instead, they now have more than enough labour which means pickers have decided to stay in Nicaragua rather than go to Costa Rica. And the pickers have told us they prefer to stay in Nicaragua than go to Costa Rica to work as emigrants.

There will always be emigration for various reasons. Sometimes out of custom, sometimes because people have relatives in other countries. But I think the economic and employment policies the government is promoting have in general improved our workers' situation. And we have concrete proof of that in examples like that of the coffee workers which I have mentioned.