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Issue Date:  July 15, 2005

Salvadoran hunger strikers protest lost jobs, benefits


Eight laid-off government workers have been on a hunger strike since May 26 outside the cathedral in San Salvador, El Salvador, to protest labor policies that left them with no benefits or social security after years of government employment.

The hunger strikers occupied the cathedral briefly until Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez agreed to intervene in the dispute. They are among 114 former employees of the prison system and postal service who lost their jobs early this year.

In an effort to downsize, the Salvadoran government instituted a policy that included laying off workers or shifting them from the payroll to contract status. Contract employees receive no benefits or social security and can find themselves out of a job when their contracts -- which are generally for one year -- end.

The protesting workers were shifted to contract status when the ministries of Justice, Interior and Security were merged to form the current Ministry of Governance and Public Safety in 2001.

“The government doesn’t take into account all the years that the employee worked for the state. It’s a way to get rid of them,” said Mila Carbajal, a lawyer at the Jesuit-run Central American University’s Human Rights Institute.

Local media reports said that most of the protesters had worked for the government for more than 20 years. After the merger, they worked under contract, but those contracts were not renewed this year.

Carbajal said that thousands of government employees have been affected by the policy, although only a small group is protesting. The human rights institute has presented the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a process that could take years.

Meanwhile, she said, the workers are left out in the cold.

“These are people who are more than 40 or 45 years old. The chance of their finding another job is virtually nil in this country,” she said. “They’re left with nothing -- not even severance pay.”

Employees who are laid off should receive a certain amount of money for every year worked, Carbajal said. She said that for many affected by the policy change, the government considers only the years that they were contract workers, not the years they were on the payroll, or puts a cap on the severance pay.

“For example, in the case of a worker who put in 28 years, they may set the cap at 10 years,” she said. “What the protesters are asking is reinstatement or at least a fair indemnification.”

While some lawsuits are pending, the courts tend to side with the government, she said.

“All government institutions close ranks and say that it’s the government’s right to set policy. The workers have no legal recourse.”

Colombina Aguilar of the General Association of Public and Municipal Employees, which represents more than 30,000 government workers and supports the strikers, said she was worried about the hunger strikers’ health.

“The outcome could be fatal,” she said. “Doctors say they are very weak.”

But Carbajal sees little likelihood that the situation will change in the near future.

“The government is being intransigent. It can outlast the workers. I doubt that the government will give in unless there is international pressure.”

Barbara Fraser is a freelance writer living in Peru.

National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2005

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