Monday, November 04, 2013

A Brief Litany of Labour Abuses in Peru

A person I know recently told me about  the case of a friend of hers, who was working as an apprentice employee of a large train operator in a Peruvian tourist centre. While working for the train operator, the friend made a mistake on the, apparently rigid and unforgiving, Amadeus reservation system, and was docked $20 USD (from her monthly part-time pay of $150 USD). Such mistakes apparently need to be corrected through an unwieldy bureaucratic process involving the physical movement of pieces of paper; yet they are fixable.

I'm not sure the practice of 'discounting' worker's wages for mistakes they make that result in losses is ever legal, anywhere, and it's certainly not right. A worker never receives the full positive benefit of transactions that they undertake successfully - so why should they ever have to bear the cost of unsuccessful ones? Although the practice is abusive, it's perhaps understandable that it is common in small and informal businesses where profit margins are very small. But this example comes from a large, formal business, part of a multinational operation that makes millions of dollars in profit.

This has inspired me to document some of the other labour abuses that I hear of from time to time in Peru. I'm not sure which of these result from violation of existing laws and regulations, and which are actually legal under Peru's notoriously 'flexible' labour legislation, but putting them in a list is a start:
  • A person has been working for a government ministry for 4 years, doing the same job, on a series of fixed-term contracts. Each year, her contract has been terminated, and then she has been invited to re-apply at the start of the next year. This means she has none of the rights of a formal employee. She is apparently considered a 'consultant', but her pay is not commensurate with this status, she has to keep fixed work hours, and she has little to no liberty in how she does her job.
  • Employees of a regional government office are required to 'swipe in' and 'swipe out' with an electronic fingerprint recognition system, every time they leave the building. Bear in mind that these are professionals with positions of responsibility, who are frequently required to attend meetings - yet they are treated like the most lowly production line workers. Someone else I know who worked in a local government office reported that arriving even 10 to 15 minutes late for work can result in being docked (already low) wages.
  •  Teachers at a rural technical institute were required to sign a contract saying they will provide remedial classes for a certain number of hours for students who are failing. These are to be provided outside normal working hours. Yet, instead of paying the teachers overtime, the institute has told the teachers that they must negotiate payment directly with the students. Because most of the students come form low-income families, they will not be able to pay much. The teachers will officially be required to provide an additional 50 hours tuition for approximately S/.60, a marginal rate of pay worse than any shoeshine boy or street vendor.
  • At the same institute, there are no text books or resources for preparing class materials and teachers have to spend their own money on printing and photocopying. Further, for their annual evaluation, they are required to present a folder of material including print copies of a couple of standard 100-page policy documents, resulting in a cost of approximately S/. 50 (from a monthly after-tax salary of S/. 1,150)  - i.e. they are paying about 5% of their wage for the privilege of having a performance review.
  • A waitress in a restaurant in a provincial centre works on weekdays from 8am to 4pm and is paid S/.300. Although she also gets provided food this is less than one half of the official full time minimum wage of S/. 750, which itself is barely at a subsistence level. This is a popular eating place for workers in the health, education and NGO sectors, because they can eat reasonably well at a low price, suggesting that the value of their own low wages is being subsidised by workers on the next tier down.
  • Most of the small travel agencies and tour operators in Arequipa are at least partially staffed by students undertaking their required practical experience. Such interns are legally required to be paid a wage, but this is almost universally ignored, and most do not get lunch or bus money either. (This is one case at least where formal labour legislation is being violated, but as far as I can tell there is no interest in enforcement, and neither do the educational institutions that these students attend seem interested in the situation).
I'm sure there will be many more, and more egregious, examples that I'll be able to list over time. For now, it's worth noting that the above examples do not all come from informal, sweatshop-style businesses but several are from large companies or the public sector - which you would think would set an example for decent working conditions.