Job losses, low wages add to Venezuela economic hardship

CARACAS (Reuters) - On a recent morning, Venezuelan mother Rossana Suarez took her three children to work with her because school was canceled.

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In an unfortunate twist, they would witness her being dismissed as a receptionist for a medical equipment company and joining the growing ranks of Venezuelans without formal employment.

“They did not give a reason. I swallowed hard and told my children not to cry,” Suarez, 36, said under the midday sun outside an office of the Labor Ministry in Caracas where she and dozens of others waited from before dawn to lodge complaints.

“My oldest daughter asked me, ‘Mom, how are we going to eat? You’re the only one who works at home.’”

Multiple companies - local and foreign - are closing doors or cutting payrolls across Venezuela, which despite its oil wealth is suffering deep recession, triple-digit inflation and chronic shortages.

According to Consecomercio, a major retail industry group, Venezuela in the past 18 months lost close to 1 million private sector jobs.

“Who is creating jobs? Nobody,” said Consecomercio Vice President Alfonso Riera. “That unemployed population unfortunately is migrating to the street, informal work or worse.”

Government critics say nationalizations of businesses and more than a decade of price and currency controls have crippled private enterprise, but President Nicolas Maduro says Venezuela is a victim of an “economic war” led by business leaders with U.S. help.

Venezuela has not reported official unemployment figures since April 2016, when the rate was at 7.3 percent.

A survey by three universities showed unemployment at the end of 2016 remained at that level. But the study also found 38 percent of those surveyed were working informal jobs ranging from buying and reselling goods to freelance work without benefits.

Only 28 percent said they were public employees and 27 percent had a job in the private sector.

Late socialist leader Hugo Chavez reformed labor regulations to reduce hours, extend maternity leave and make dismissals almost impossible. Maduro, his successor and a former union activist, has continued that.

Union sources said major companies such as food and beermaker Polar, carmaker Ford F.N and bottler Cola-Cola Femsa KOFL.MX all are reducing their workforce by negotiating redundancies and offering employees buyouts.

“People are taking the packages,” said Jhonny Magdaleno, who leads a Polar union. He said workers were being offered the equivalent of $2,500 at the black market exchange rate.

“Production has fallen too much,” he said. “The workers who are left are making 4,000 bolivars weekly ($1 at the black market rate). That doesn’t even enable them to buy a pack of flour.”

Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Diego Ore and Bill Trott