Cuba: Can Official Labor Meet the Needs of Private Workers?

By Geoff Thale*

Alberto Yoan Arego Pulido / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Alberto Yoan Arego Pulido / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

As Cuba embraces a new but still undefined economic model, it’s unclear whether or how the country’s old labor laws and regulatory systems will be adapted to accommodate the interests of employees in the growing private and cooperative sectors, or in the newly autonomous state enterprises.  The trade union structure cannot play the social role it played in the past with the emergence of businesses owned by both individuals and cooperatives, a growing role for foreign investment, and increasingly decentralized state enterprises.  During a recent trip to Cuba, our research team met with representatives and staff from a range of officially recognized trade unions.  We met with the national labor federation – the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) – and with national and local officials from some member unions, including the national president of the health care workers’ union; local trade union officials in the hotel and restaurant workers union in the tourist sector in Old Havana; and local officials representing self-employed and small-business owners who have joined the union for retail and commercial workers.  A Labor Code approved by the National Assembly in December 2013 changed some aspects of the legal framework for labor relations.  It continued to privilege the CTC as the sole labor federation, while also taking some steps to recognize the new issues that confront workers in the emerging sectors of the economy.  It established a maximum number of hours of work (44) for private-sector employees, required the self-employed or small-business owners to pay into a social security fund and ensure social protections – health care, pensions, etc. – for employees.  And it guaranteed private-sector employees seven days paid vacation per year (though less than the one month given to state-sector workers).

Our interviews, however, turned up more questions than answers.  Newly autonomous state enterprises have greater latitude in setting wages, incentives and working conditions, but it remains unclear how these decentralized enterprises will handle labor relations issues, and what kind of negotiations might take place on compliance with regulations on workplace safety and protection, wage requirements and employment opportunities.  Indeed, it is unclear how the current worker organizations will represent workers in these decentralized enterprises.  The growth of the private sector presents another challenge.  The CTC has sought to organize the self-employed into the unions in the industries in which they are functioning – the food service and restaurant union, the retail and commercial sector union, and so on – but it is unclear how the union will represent the interests of both owners of independent small businesses – cuentapropistas – and the 15 percent of “self-employed” who are actually employees in those enterprises.  Similar queries are popping up in the cooperative sector and in enterprises run as joint ventures with foreign corporations or as wholly foreign-owned companies.

Cuba’s new labor policies are clearly a work in progress, but they signal recognition that there is an emerging stratum of non-state sector employees – and that they need social protections.  It also reflects a balancing act between ensuring stable employment and benefiting from the flexibility that private sector employment models provide.  The new Labor Code requires, for example, that employers sign year-long contracts with employees while guaranteeing them access to health care, parental leave and other benefits during that period.  New challenges will emerge, especially in terms of the structures that represent the interests of these groups and advocate for them.  But for now, there appears to be progress in establishing a system of social protections for the self-employed and for their employees under the new labor code.  Concerns about the burden of compliance appear likely to be muted for at least the near term because, as it was clear to us during our visit, the self-employed and their employees are earning substantially higher incomes than are workers in the state sector.

*Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), in October led the research team’s fifth visit to Cuba examining the impact of economic change on workers.

December 9, 2014

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