Reports from Cuba: Danger, men at work

Luz Escobar reporting for 14yMedio via Translating Cuba:

Danger, Men At Work

They call him “Manolo 440” because a few years ago he had an electrocution accident in a building under construction. He managed to survive and has since been given the nickname of the voltage that almost killed him. He was lucky, unlike the 89 people who died in Cuba last year in one of the 11 work accidents that occur every day on the Island.

Shortly before April 28, World Occupational Safety and Health Day, a worker painting the façade of the Hotel Plaza in Havana stumbled and fell two floors onto the street. He had no protective gear but was lucky and was taken to the hospital.

The United Nations counts 6,300 people who die every day in the world due to accidents or work-related illnesses. There are more than 317 million work accidents annually. But that data is only a part of it.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) has called for eradicating the practice of “massaging” the numbers and this year is leading an intensive campaign in which it insists that it is essential for countries to improve “their ability to collect and use reliable data on safety and health in Work (SST).”

In Cuba, information on this scourge is rarely addressed in the press, although in recent years the National Bureau of Statistics and Information (ONEI) has published some figures. According to this state agency, in 2016 occupational accidents totaled 3,576 (144 more than in the previous year). Havana leads the list of provinces with 27 deaths.

The head of the Department of Occupational Safety and Health at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security (MTSS), Angel San Martín Duporté, said a few weeks ago that “66% of accidents are caused by the poor conduct of men and women. ”

However, workers say the principal causes of work accidents are poor organization, the chaotic supply of protective gear and measures, and the incompetence of unions in demanding compliance with safety protocols as the main causes of workplace accidents.

“These boots were brought to me by a relative from Ecuador,” says a sugarcane cutter at the Majibacoa sugar mill in Las Tunas. The man, who preferred to be called Ricardo to avoid reprisals, said agricultural workers in the area are subject to frequent “cuts on their hands and feet.” He says, “the type of footwear matters a lot, because if it is strong and high the chances of getting cut are smaller.”

All those who work alongside Ricardo are dressed in old military uniforms that were gifts or that they bought in the informal market. “They do not give us adequate clothes and when it does come the sizes are too small or too large,” the cane cutter complains. “We have had colleagues who don’t even have a hat and have gotten sun stroke, with dizziness, headaches and even vomiting,” he emphasizes.

Clothing and footwear are among the personal protective equipment which according to the new Labor Code must be supplied free of charge by the employer. Although an official of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security clarifies via telephone to this newspaper that “each company has autonomy to modify those issues.”

Damaris, head of a construction brigade located in Central Havana, says that the workers under her command are “very upset” because now they have to pay for their work clothes and shoes. Previously, both garments were “supplied free” but now are “deducted from wages” and in response the workers are refusing to pay the union dues.

The Government allocates between 20% and 30% of the gross monthly salary of a construction worker linked to the tourist sector to pay for life insurance. “When someone is injured, that money is supposed to cover them, but the truth is that it serves for very little.”

An injured worker has the right to receive benefits in services such as orthopedic appliances and prosthetics, according to Law 105/8 of Social Security. As far as economic compensation is concerned, they get a total or partial disability pension which can reach up to 90% of their salary. In the case of death, the amount goes to the nearest relatives such as husbands or minor children.

For a person in delicate health, that money barely lasts for a couple of weeks. “I lost three fingers while working on the railroads,” says Yasiel Ruíz, a transportation technician who now sells churros near a school in Marianao.

The former state employee would have received a disability payment of less than the equivalent of 5 Cuban convertible pesos per month (about $5 US), so he decided to start his own business. “I gave up the financial compensation because it was more paperwork than benefits. My family helps me and I have become accustomed to not having those fingers, but at the beginning it was difficult,” he confesses. He claims that the accident in which he suffered the amputation was caused by “a failure to close a cattle transfer cage,” but he never brought his case to a labor court.

Decisions like his are repeated over and over again. Vicente A. Entrialgo León, a lawyer specializing in labor law, recently confirmed to the official press that in Cuba “there are not a great number of claims around this issue.”

But the danger is not only in the complicated work of construction, the hard work of the countryside, or the roughness of working on the railroad.

Nuria is afraid of contracting a disease at the polyclinic in Plaza of the Revolution municipality where she works as a dentist. “I get three pairs of gloves a day and many times they break while I’m taking care of a patient, but I cannot change them,” she complains. She says that there is little distribution of “equipment and hygiene items” to keep the place clean and “to protect patients and staff.”

The National Labor Inspection Office (ONIT) must ensure that these situations do not happen and demand “administrative responsibility” in case of accidents. But Nuria has never seen a representative of that entity visiting the health center clinics where she works. “This is like Russian roulette, any day I could get an infection.”