CARACAS, Venezuela — Public school teachers in Venezuela had planned to use their annual vacation bonus to buy uniforms for their children, waterproof leaky roofs, get new prescription glasses or repair the pair that were barely held together by tape.
Some expected to get $100, while others calculated a little more or less based on their years of service and higher education, although only a small number thought they would get around $200.
The government, however, paid them only a tiny fraction.
So, days into their long hiatus, teachers marched by the thousands across the country, threatening to go on strike at the start of the school year or perhaps even give up their profession.
“Right now I don’t even have a pencil for my children to start school in September,” said Florena Delgado, who teaches first and fifth grade at two schools in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the capital, Caracas.
She also makes cake decorations, creates balloon decorations, and sells clothes to supplement her government salary. Unless something changes, “I don’t plan on taking any classes, well, that’s what God wants,” she says.
In response to the unrest, the government announced through a lawmaker on Friday that it would pay the full bonus this week. But Venezuelan teachers have long been used to seeing television economic promises that are not kept, so they are waiting for their money before changing course.
Elementary and secondary school educators in this troubled country earn an average of around $50 a month, ranking among the lowest paid in Latin America. The government pays them a one-time holiday bonus at the end of each school year in July.
The National Budget Office has based this year’s bonus on the 2021 monthly minimum wage of $1.52 instead of the $30 rate that went into effect in April. The government also only paid teachers 25% of the surprisingly low premium and did not set a date for disbursing the rest.
The budget office defended the calculation, arguing that a new labor agreement has not been signed. But by Friday, National Assembly member Orlando Pérez, who is president of one of the country’s teachers’ unions, said the government would pay teachers their full bonus, as required. Venezuelan labor law, which sets them on the basis of the last wages.
In front of the offices of the Ministry of Education, teachers and college professors, who also earn meager salaries and feel cheated on their holiday bonus, demanded the dismissal of the head of the agency. Some teachers said they had not even received the 25% payment.
The protesting teachers were joined by other workers, including traditionally loyal to the government of state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela. Red t-shirts long associated with the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela were in abundance at a protest, in which workers from the health, cement and electricity sectors expressed their support for the demands of the teachers.
President Nicolás Maduro did not comment on the teachers’ complaints, angering some of them.
“He’s a worker, he was a worker. He should remember that he comes from the bottom” of the social scale, teacher Leinni Carreño said of Maduro, who was once a bus driver and member of a union.
Teachers and professors work two, three or even four jobs, but their multiple paychecks sometimes aren’t enough to cover the basic food basket, which cost $392 last month. Many teach in borderline dangerous conditions, as pests, mold, dirt and stagnant water that attracts mosquitoes are ubiquitous in schools.
Physics, chemistry and biology labs are long gone, and thieves have taken advantage of unsupervised schools during the pandemic to strip buildings of copper wires and steal computers and other equipment.
Sociology professor Erly Ruiz earns around $90 a month. So he also delivers goods around Caracas on his bike, works in a factory that produces blackberry wine, and rents sound equipment. If his odd jobs go well, his total income can reach around $400. He had booked his scheduled vacation bonus for an electrical repair at home.
His budget is so tight that his friends gave him leftovers from his birthday last month.
“For a week straight, I was able to eat protein every day at least once a day,” Ruiz said after riding his bike to deliver kitty litter to a customer. “This week was the only week in the whole year that I was able to eat protein on a regular basis.”
Professors and teachers have dropped out of the teaching ranks since the onset of the country’s economic and political crisis in the past decade. The Venezuelan Teachers’ Federation estimates that 50% of the country’s 370,000 teachers have left classrooms since 2017. They are among more than 6 million Venezuelans who have emigrated to other countries.
Even those who still teach do not always fulfill their duties due to transportation, health, salary and other challenges. Some live so far from the schools to which they are assigned that their public transport commute eats away at their salary.
Call center supervisor Jonás Nuñez sympathizes with education workers. He was a primary school teacher for 14 years but quit in 2020.
“The economic situation made everything change because I have a daughter, I have a family. So (the salary) no longer covered the expenses,” Ruiz said. “I miss it because you learned a lot from the children who were with you.”
Teachers have threatened strikes in the past, but this time anger has been building throughout the pandemic as they were forced to try to educate students with limited or no internet access, say had to contend with a collapsed healthcare system and saw commodity prices soar in Venezuela. relentless galloping inflation.
Opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by the United States and several other nations as Venezuela’s rightful leader, expressed his support for teachers and professors. But he and opposition parties have little impact on Maduro, whose regime controls all government institutions.
Delgado, who works one shift at one school in the morning and another shift at another school in the afternoon, wants to continue teaching to be a role model for her students, but dissatisfaction over the bonus vacation and regular salary increases.
“There are a lot of kids who really need someone to guide them, to be there for them, who can really help them,” Delgado said. “It’s hard when you walk into a classroom and see that there are kids going to school just because they’re feeding them.
“At school, you see that there are children who don’t have notebooks, who don’t have pencils because their parents are in the same situation as the teachers who are trying to earn a living, and they work day and night.”