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A direct contact mission from the International Labor Organization (ILO) arrived in Venezuela earlier this week to investigate complaints presented before that organization by the National Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) and the country’s largest chamber of commerce federation, Fedecamaras. The ILO has been critical of Venezuela in the past, alleging violations of freedom of association and political persecution against the CTV.

Formed in 1946 as the UN agency specializing in labor, the ILO is a tripartite organization that brings together representatives from government, business, and labor.

Headed by Argentinean ex-viceminister and professor Jorge Sappia, the mission is spending four days to meet with representatives of government, business, and trade-unions. On Wednesday, the mission met with Venezuelan minister of Labour Maria Christina Iglesias and viceminister Ricardo Dorado in what was later described by Sappia as a “cordial” meeting on proposed reforms to Venezuela’s labour legistlation.

According to Venezuela’s government radio (RNV), during his meeting with the Minister of Labour, mission-head Jorge Sappia congratulated the government on the strengthening of Venezuela’s institutions as a result of the Presidential referendum last August. Sappia also stressed the importance of continuing social dialogue between all sectors of Venezuelan society, and noted the positive steps the Venezuelan government has taken in this direction since 2002.

These comments are in stark contrast to the harsh criticisms the ILO has made of Venezuela as recently as last spring. At the 289th session of the ILO’s Governing Body last March, the Committee on Freedom of Association singled out Venezuela, Colombia, China, and Myanmar as the most urgent cases.

The association of Venezuela, where grievances against the government are procedural, with countries marred by systemic violence against trade-union leaders has caused some government officials to dismiss the ILO report as politically motivated.

According to the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association, the current Labor Law passed in 1990 and controversially amended in 1997 during the government of Rafael Caldera, violates worker and employer’s rights to freedom of association. Reforms to the law proposed by the Ministry of Labor are designed to address issues of union autonomy and democracy, and to bring the law into accordance with the constitution of the ILO, of which Venezuela is a signatory.

In a statement to the press yesterday, a legal consultant to the Ministry of Labor, Francisco Lopez, noted that “the text of the reform includes recommendations made by the ILO since 1992.” “The reforms are in accordance not only with the Venezuelan constitution,” he continued, “but are also oriented to comply with that of that international organization.”

Vice minister of Labor Ricardo Dorado said by telephone that one of the aims of the reform is to increase worker participation in labor organizations, expressing his conviction that “workers problems should be resolved among workers.” The law is currently under debate in Venezuela’s National Assembly.

The Caldera government’s amendments to the labor law in 1997 where part of a broader implementation of neoliberal reforms resulting in a serious regression of working conditions in Venezuela. Implementation of the Privatization Law, passed on December 30th, 1997, shortly before President-elect Hugo Chávez assumed office, resulted in the auctioning of a several of state enterprises, including Latin America’s largest steel plant SIDOR.

Workers have maintained that with these reforms came poorer working conditions, cuts to health and safety, and direct attacks by companies on union activists. SIDOR workers went on strike last spring to protest against these and other issues, identifying the re-nationalization of the company as the only acceptable solution to their grievances.

The ILO’s failure to sanction the Caldera administration for their implementation of policies contrary to the interests of workers has meant that current criticisms of Chávez’ government are perceived to be politically motivated by pro-Chávez labor leaders. According to Central Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CUTV) President Pedro Eusse, who met with the direct contact mission on Wednesday, the tripartite nature of the ILO means the alliance between the CTV and Fedecamaras puts the Venezuelan government at a disadvantage. Further, organizations that hold sway within the ILO, such as the Interamerican Regional Labor Organization (ORIT) and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU/CIOSL), have been “echoing the CTV,” notes Eusse. “The result,” he continues, “is the maintenance of positions based on political considerations instead of representing workers’ rights.”