CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan tax offices stand deserted, classrooms lack teachers, and utility bills go uncollected, as meager civil servant salaries drive chronic absenteeism and resignations in the hundreds of thousands.
After years of economic crisis in the once-prosperous OPEC member, many state institutions now work at a fraction of capacity as workers give up on incomes that barely feed them.
With fewer staff, state power and phone companies often ignore outages, the Caracas metro limits services, and the national tax body has abandoned its once-ferocious oversight of private companies, according to dozens of public employees.
Phone company Cantv, which was nationalized in 2007, pays around $6 a month, said worker and union member Igor Lira. “What can you do with that?” she asked, explaining why so many had left and those who stayed were working other jobs on the side.
Though helping state coffers, the low salaries erode loyalty, weaken the state’s ability to function, and ultimately add to unemployment and chronic service deficiencies among an already long-suffering people. Venezuelans numbered roughly 30 million before an exodus of several million in recent years.
At the Caracas metro, the bedrock of public transport in the capital, many employees simply took vacations and never came back, said a 57-year-old recent retiree with three decades there.
The metro, where leftist President Nicolas Maduro once worked as a bus driver and union leader, pays employees in the local bolivar currency the equivalent of about $10 per month.
State workers say apathy became particularly acute following three years of hyperinflation and the crushing impact of this year’s coronavirus lockdown.
One manager of the state-run Caracas electricity company, also nationalized in 2007, said he only goes into his office once a week, while running a taxi on the side where just a couple of trips can earn him $4 – his monthly government salary.
Those who do turn up for work often have to pay for spare parts themselves to fix problems, said Angel Navas, a union official at the same company.
State tax, post, heavy industry, communications and electricity companies where Reuters requested comment did not respond. Neither did the Information Ministry.
A parliamentary vote earlier this month showed the government’s diminished capacity to pressure public officials into backing Maduro allies. Already hit by an opposition boycott, turnout was low even in pro-government areas and the ruling Socialist Party won fewer votes than in previous polls.
Romulo Munoz, who has worked for 15 years at state aluminum smelter Venalum in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz, skipped voting for the first time in decades. With a salary also of about $10 per month, he depends on a box of food handed out by the government each month under a program known as CLAP.
“I didn’t vote, because I want to speed up the process for a new government to come,” he said. “When that happens, workers will have benefits and we will not need a CLAP box to survive.”
The country’s 2.8 million remaining government workers on average make $13 per month, less than half private sector workers, according to local research firm Anova.
It and two other consultancies estimate at least 500,000 public employees have resigned in the last year.
Anova calculates at least 25% of state employees survive on the minimum wage. It dropped below $1 per month – which would buy 1kg of rice or corn flour – for part of the year amid annualized inflation of 4,087%.
Measuring the civil servant exodus is difficult because many stop working without resigning and state agencies this year stopped punishing absenteeism, according to the interviews. Even with reduced and staggered shifts during the pandemic, many still do not bother to show up, and there is no sanction.
Teachers in public schools seldom work more than 20 hours per week, according to union leaders.
Physical education teacher Victor Carrillo has taught for 20 years but has to do jobs on the side repairing the apartment block where he lives in order to cover basic costs. Last month, he took to the streets in a protest rally.
Maduro, in office since 2013, says Venezuela’s economic problems are caused by U.S. sanctions – but does acknowledge low salaries are a problem. “It is an open, festering wound that we are going to heal,” he said recently.
The government has raised bolivar wages over-and-over, but they cannot keep pace with inflation.
Soldiers are the best-paid, at about $17 per month. One public university’s accounts show Ninfa Baron, a full-time IT professor, as the best-paid there with $10 a month, but she only gets by with a remote consulting job for a firm in Paraguay.
The country has seen 544 labor protests this year, according to the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, most of which are led by state employees.
The halls of the Seniat tax agency, which aggressively enforced collection under late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, on most days are empty and silent, according to workers.
Seniat officials who organized surprise inspections of companies could take home as much as $700 per month in 2012, according to two workers. Since then, the agency has lost half its employees and now pays about $13 per month.
“Where there were 20 officials in an office, now there are two,” said one veteran tax inspector.
That has left the government struggling for tax revenue amid declining oil output and Washington’s sanctions that stifle crude exports.
Some public officials leave the country, while others just walk away. Maria Boyer quit her job at the government-owned postal service and now makes coconut sweets that she sells for the equivalent of $1.
“One day I was eating lunch in the office – plain pasta, with no cheese – and I quit,” said Boyer, on a delivery run.
“I couldn’t live like that.”
Reporting by Mayela Armas and Corina Pons in Caracas; Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne