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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers. 

William somarriba
William Somarriba claims he was fired as a taxman for the Nicaraguan government because he didn't belong to the ruling party, the Sandinistas. (Tim Rogers/GlobalPost)

In Nicaragua, Sandinista membership a prerequisite for government work

Tens of thousands of fired employees petition the US for help.

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Tens of thousands of Nicaraguan civil servants who claim they’ve been wrongfully terminated by the leftist Sandinista government are appealing for help from the US Department of Labor.

Alvaro Leiva, the lawyer representing the group, claims that nearly 20 percent of Nicaragua’s entire public-sector workforce has been fired “illegally for political reasons” since the Sandinistas returned to power in 2007 under President Daniel Ortega.

Workers here claim that in addition to the mass layoffs of civil servants deemed disloyal to the ruling party, the government has implemented a system wherein job applicants are usually asked for a letter of recommendation from their neighborhood Sandinista Council of Citizen Power and a membership card for the National Workers’ Front, the official Sandinista union.

It may be wishful thinking — not to mention a touchy political issue in a country with a history of US interventionism — but the 23,439 former state employees and their federation of unions hope to find justice in the Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

CAFTA, which entered into force in 2006, has been particularly good for the Nicaraguan economy, boosting exports to the US by 75 percent, attracting millions of dollars in foreign-direct investment, and creating tens of thousands of jobs. But Leiva alleges that the Ortega government has abused its own labor laws in the process, violating Nicaragua's contractual obligations under CAFTA and a dozen other international labor conventions.

“They treated me like a criminal.”
~William Somarriba, former government tax collector

In a complaint due to be filed on Thursday, Leiva charges that the Nicaraguan government itself is an abusive employer, and is asking the Department of Labor’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (OTLA) to pressure Ortega’s administration to rehire and/or pay restitution to the fired civil servants.

The problem of labor abuses against middle-class professionals is not new in Latin America; it occurs every time there is a change in government. Unlike the working poor, who risk losing their factory jobs when the economy dips, Latin America’s pinched middle class — much of which is employed in the public sector— risk losing their jobs every time there’s an election.

More from GlobalPost: Nicaragua's Marxist government gets religion on free trade zones

The general rule is: The greater the ideological swing from one administration to the next, the more vulnerable hapless bureaucrats are to arbitrary turnover. This is especially true in Nicaragua, where until a generation ago regime changes were so extreme they were done with guns. Even though governments here are now largely elected democratically, each new administration has continued the time-honored practice of “Quitate vos, pa’ ponerme yo,” or, loosely translated, “You’re in my seat, dude.”

While it’s now up to the Department of Labor to decide whether Leiva’s case against the Nicaraguan government has any merit, the fact that his federation of unions is even appealing for outside help demonstrates the frustration and impotence that many Nicaraguan workers feel in a system where their boss is judge, jury and executioner.

Even Sandinista unions with a bit of an independent streak claim they are treated like “second-class workers” in a country where blind obedience is often considered a virtue.

More from GlobalPost: Nicaragua goes back to gold

The born-again Sandinista government — a curious cocktail of Christian fundamentalism, faux-hippy happiness and retro-revolutionary rhetoric (a political concoction created by President Daniel Ortega’s eccentric wife, Rosario Murillo) — returned to power five years ago after 16 years of wandering in the proverbial political wilderness.

The Sandinistas’ first government was marked by a tumultuous decade of revolutionary rule, a bloody counterrevolutionary war against US-backed “contra” rebels, and a mixed-economy gone haywire. Yet for all the Sandinistas’ post-Cold War political and economic transformations, the party hasn’t entirely forgotten its authoritarian roots.

Today, the government’s discrimination of public-sector workers is — from an outsider’s view — oddly quaint; at times it still seems like an anachronistic throwback to the days of Communism, where party membership was a palladium of citizen rights and a prerequisite for state employment. Ortega’s cult of personality pervades government offices, with posters celebrating him plastered throughout and workers often called to attend political rallies at nighttime or on the weekends.

“Public employees are in a situation that is precarious and totally indefensible,” says opposition congressman Alberto José Lacayo, president of the legislative Commission on Labor and Union Affairs. “If state workers are not part of a Sandinista union, they have no rights. Many have been fired without reason — or, more accurately, the reason was that they are not Sandinistas.”

‘Who among you is a Liberal?’

Carlos Brenes, a former taxman for Nicaragua’s Revenue Agency (DGI), said he was “invited” to 110 political rallies during the first seven months after Ortega’s return to power in 2007. But as a proud member of the opposition Liberal Party, Brenes skipped every one. Then, on a hot July day, Brenes sealed his fate when his boss, Walter Porras, the Sandinistas’ flamboyant and Bible-thumping tax director from Managua, visited Brenes’ tax collection office in Granada.

During the meeting with employees, Porras asked, “Who among you is a Liberal?”

Brenes defiantly raised his hand.