Preventing the Violation of Cuban Worker Rights

Rogelio Manuel Diaz Moreno

Médico con su periódico.  Foto: Juan Suárez
Médico con su periódico. Foto: Juan Suárez

HAVANA TIMES — Problems can be solved efficaciously only if we address their root cause. Applying headstrong measures or forcing people to submit to higher authorities and the like only makes matters worse. In contexts such as ours, however, the authorities tend to often rely on these types of measures, perhaps because they don’t know how to do anything else, or simply can’t. This way, they leave problems unresolved and sometimes even break the law.

Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health is going through a difficult situation. Since it would be unfair to mention the problem out of context, let us first make some clarifications. We live in an economically backward and poor Third World economy, bogged down by an external, imperialist blockade and an internal, bureaucratic apparatus (1).

The developmental levels reached by Cuba, however, are over and above those that one would expect from this reality. In the field of health, this is evidenced in a low infant mortality rate, high life expectancy, vaccination services for all and other vital mechanisms. These achievements contrast with the gloomy state of many health institutions and the discontent of workers and patients, stemming from working conditions in the sector.

The exodus of health professionals is a phenomenon that deals the sector a particularly hard blow. A certain rumor (which I obviously cannot confirm) has it that, in recent times, the rate of medical doctors leaving the country went up to eight specialists a day. If this is true, Cuba would be losing nearly 3,000 professionals every year, generally experienced physicians who cannot be replaced in the short term, no matter how many new doctors graduate from the country’s faculties of medicine. By emigrating, these specialists exercise a basic human right, that of seeking decorous remuneration for their work, something they regrettably cannot do in their country.

Recently, we saw yet another desperate measure passed down from above, in an effort to solve the problem without going to its causes. In some health institutions, authorities seek to illegitimately modify work contracts, in clear violation of Cuban legislation. Those who sign off commit to working at the health institution for a minimum of three years if they receive training in the use of medical equipment that is considered high-tech. The piece of paper they would have people sign literally reads: “In the event training in the use of high technologies is received, the employee commits to working at the institution for a period no shorter than three (3) years.”

This document, which seeks to modify the existing work contract, is written in a vague language which does not even clarify what such training would consist in. Nor does the document describe the mechanism that would be used to sanction the employee who signs but doesn’t fulfill its terms, be it because they leave the country or quit because of a personal or family-related issue. It isn’t clear whether the right to travel abroad through one’s own means during holidays will be respected, or what will happen if a female employee becomes pregnant and requires maternity leave.

Before the clause of discord, the document refers to a number of clauses in the Labor Code currently in effect in Cuba, invoking the conditions under which a signed employment contract may be modified. This way, the authorities would have us accept the said phrase as a modification to the current contracts of medical workers. One gets the impression that the preliminary remarks are designed to convince workers that management is legally entitled to carry out the planned modification and that one cannot object.

Doctor.  Photo: Juan  Suarez
Doctor. Photo: Juan Suarez

The problem is that a contract may only be modified if such a modification does not violate current legislation. For instance, the management cannot establish a contractual “right” to lash employees who arrive to work late. We should also note that this measure was in no way negotiated by employees and the union, the institution that must allegedly be heard during such processes.

Forgetting about the Cuban Workers’ Association and its exquisite nullity, let us have a look at what Cuba’s socialist legislation says. The issue of work contract terminations is clearly legislated by the Labor Code itself (law 116, approved by the National Assembly and published in an extraordinary issue of the Official Gazette on Tuesday, June 17, 2014).

Article 45 of this law enumerates the possible reasons for the termination of a contract. If the contract is terminated by the State employer, a number of requirements (listed elsewhere in the code) must be met. If the employee decides to terminate the contract, then Article 46 (which establishes a prior notice of anywhere from 1 to 4 months) applies. That is the law.

It may be that, for personal reasons, an employee voluntarily accepts to grant the employer faculties that are more restrictive than those established by law. It is also reasonable that an employer should wish to secure an investment it’s made (by training a person abroad, for instance). What’s clear, however, is that this cannot be imposed on anyone by force. Whoever tries to do so is breaking the law and could be taken to court.

Four months is time enough for someone who received a typical training course (one to two weeks long) to pass on their knowledge to a replacement. This is how it’s worked all of these years. The peanuts one gets when one travels abroad do not compensate for the loss of a right. The worker who receives the training goes back to the same position, with the same hours and wages. The management gets much more out of the ability to implement new technologies, treatment methods, etc.

The management of several health facilities will likely start pressuring their employees to sign this document. Every move in this direction will make the crime more serious and worsen the sentence that must be imposed by the pertinent labor courts, or perhaps by the District Attorney’s Office, which has defended the rights of individuals pushed around by arrogant institutions more than once.

Management may also present the matter in an equally petty fashion, without having to resort to politically incorrect threats. Some people would be willing to sign anything in order to get a trip or out of fear the trip will be given to someone else who has signed the document. Shadier things have been done and will continue to be done in the future, here and elsewhere. If workers are aware of their rights and are willing to defend these, however, no such violation will be possible.

The specialists at the hospital where I was told of this measure have for the most part refused to sign the document until clear guarantees regarding their rights are established. We’ll have to wait and see how things develop.
[1] On December 17 last year, a process aimed at the gradual elimination of the restrictions stemming from the US blockade began.