Wage discrimination and abuse leaves Venezuelan refugees with a bad taste for Guyana
Human trafficking of Venezuelans has become a major problem inside Guyana. But many people here agree that exploitation of Venezuelan migrants is a more pervasive problem.
Rosalinda Mercano, 24, wanted to escape the economic hardship gripping Venezuela. Paying US$500 each for a spot on a boat, Roaslinda, her husband and son travelled across the border and settled in the community of White Water in the North West district of Guyana. For months, the mother of one scoured ads in the newspapers, online platforms and asked around for a place to find work. An employer looking for a bilingual store attendant sent for her and after being split up from her husband and son who were barred from making the journey, she made the 15 hour journey alone into Georgetown.
“After I arrived, they took me to a house West Demerara,” she said. “I was told that I would be staying with the relatives of the owner of the store. They did not say when I would start working.”
The host offered to assist Rosalinda with obtaining Guyanese ID Rosalinda card and she handed over her Venezuelan ID, an immigration document and her immigration pass. Rosalinda later found out that the employer did not own a store but rather a roadside stall where they sold perishable goods.
“I cleaned the house and washed the wares almost daily for the first week,” Rosalinda recalled. “The lady said to me not to be talking to much people and they told me not to have contact with my family. After about three weeks I realized that I was not going to work outside the house.”
The young mother was paid GYD$5000, the equivalent of US$23, for the three weeks she spent at her employer. ”They promised be a salary but I was treated like a slave,” she said.
When Rosalinda’s sister Karinya found out about the conditions her sister was working under, she travelled to Georgetown and managed to find out where Rosalinda sister was being kept. Karinya confronted the employers and threatened to involve the police. The employers then released Rosalinda with the documents they had kept.
Rosalinda later found a job in a Chinese store in the city where she is paid GYD$12,000, that is US$53, weekly.
“Venezuelans being forced into cheap labour is a problem which has been occurring ever since the economic situation in the neighbouring country [Venezuela] started to head downhill, said Eduardo Bermudez, an official of the Venezuelan Migrant Support Group, a local non-governmental organization assisting migrants.
In Guyana, refugees are paid below the minimum wage which stands at GYD$60,000 per month. Although some find out that they are being paid cheaply, they continue to work since as their options are limited.
Refugees face restrictive labour laws, administrative obstacles, the threat of violence as well as discrimination.
Bermudez also noted that the language barrier makes it difficult for Venezuelan nationals to report their experiences to the authorities or even understand what they are being lured into. ”It is usually very difficult for [them] to adjust simply because they do not speak English and that’s the migrants’ biggest challenge.”
Joevis Rodriguez and his friend Rolando Galvez Machiz were working daily from 0800hrs until midnnight, with little time for lunch or a break. The duo worked at a construction site outside of Georgetown, at a village called Crane.
They were promised high salaries with benefits and accompanied by Rolando’s architect wife, decided to take up jobs.
Joevis left behind his teaching job while Rolando, a skilled contractor, was seeking to utilise his skills to start a new life east of Venezuela. Through friends, they heard about the contractor. After initial inquiries, they negotiated salaries of GYD$4000, US$19 per day. Finding this manageable, they moved to live at a village close to the construction site.
The two men were working alongside 16 other Venezuelan nationals at the construction site. Several Guyanese men worked with the men but while their Guyanese co-workers were amenable, the contractor, his managers and wife treated the Venezuelan nationals unfairly.
The first two weeks went well, then, the contractor’s wife visited the site to pay their salaries. Instead of paying the agreed sum, the woman deducted three days pay from one of the men and informed him that he was late for work on those three days. She also said that he was not entitled to overtime.
In addition, she accused one of the men of stealing a day’s worth of payment while she turned her back as she was in the process of paying their salaries.
“They assume these people do not know what is happening,” a Guyanese woman who lives close by related. The woman, a Guyanese migrant who returned to Guyana from Venezuela in 2018 after spending more than a decade in the neighbouring country, said that many foreigners are recruited by the contractor.
An employee working with Joevis and Rolando said that the men were subjected to the most explicit and abusive language whenever the contractor or his managers gave orders. The men started to complain but this would anger the contractor who would enter a tirade. “He threaten to take away their immigration documents after he told them he can’t pay them any more money than what he was paying them,” they related.
The employee said he was upset at the manner in which the men were treated, noting that they were taken to the area to “do cheap labour.”
Finally after three months, Joevis and Rolando decided to leave the job.
On the outskirts of the capital, on the East Bank of Demerara, Biker’s Bar is a popular watering hole where foreign prostitutes work and live on the premises. A local businessman who asked for anonymity, said that some of the women are hired by middlemen who pass the orders to the more experienced women living upstairs at the bar who can teach the new employees how to negotiate the job.
The bar gained prominence in local media reports back in August 2018 when 27 female nationals were detained by the police on suspicion that the owners were operating an unlicensed, prostitution business in the residential community of Covent Garden where the bar is located.
Public Relations Officer of the Guyana Police Force, Superintendent Jairam Ramlakhan told the local media that of the 27 female foreign nationals, 25 were Venezuelan women.
At another bar at the community of Diamond, a Guyanese employee reported that the women are offered jobs at the entertainment spot as waitresses but in time, they become prostitutes.
The employee said the girls live together at homes owned or rented by the bar owners who dictate their movements. This, they noted is prevalent at most of the bars where Venezuelan women ‘work’ in Guyana.
At Lethem, the Spanish-speaking women who are employed by at least at one of the bars in the area, are restricted and monitored in their movements.
A Guyanese mother of two who recently moved to Lethem to take up a government job, said that the women are often followed around by their ‘employers’ and only emerge at night time.
She also said that many within the “Venezuelan circle” in Lethem are familiar with the modus operandi of the women and traffickers also observed “ teenage Venezuelan girls,” working at the bar.
Statistically, Venezuelan nationals are the largest number of refugees who are trafficked here and the majority of these face these obstacles to find fair and paid, decent work.
In August 2019, the Ministerial Task Force on Human Trafficking which was set-up by the authorities to tackle human trafficking, said that from January-March, 2019, local police conducted a number of operations resulting in the investigations of the 67 alleged cases. It said that 53 of the alleged victims were Venezuelans, 10 Guyanese and four were from the Dominican Republic.
The task force said that with the non-nationals, Venezuelans, accounted for the majority of alleged victims in Guyana for 2018 and the early parts of 2019.
Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan noted at a Supreme Court of Judicature and Judicial Education Institute- Guyana (JEI) workshop for Trafficking in Persons in September this year, said that most of the women rescued by the authorities in TIP raids were below the age of 30 and were from Venezuela.
The 2017 United States, State Department’s TIP report on Guyana detailed that foreign and local women and children are subjected to sex trafficking in mining communities in the interior and urban areas here.
Notwithstanding the numerous TIP cases before the courts, such situations in the Hinterland have re-occurred on many occasions. But the dynamics have changed.
The bleak situation in Venezuela has seen women from that country replacing the Guyanese women since the former are being lured into the mines and many are usually caught off-guard, many are most time unaware of where they are being taken. Venezuelan national, Estephany Martinez relocated to Georgetown from the mining town of Mahdia after taking up a job there.
The 24-year-old mother of two said she worked as a counter attendant at a shop but after witnessing her friends being involved in prostitution she realized it was not the ideal situation for her. ”I come back, I speak English little bit but in Mahdia I cannot work prostituta,” Martinez said.
After leaving her home and son behind at Carabobo, Valencia in Venezuela, she settled at Lethem briefly before moving to Georgetown.
Martinez said she started a relationship with a Guyanese-born Venezuelan man and after the birth of their daughter in March 2018, their relationship ended.
She said not being able to speak English was her greatest challenge and also prevented her from obtaining a job as a single mother in an English-speaking country. She left for Mahdia in June this year but her recent encounter with prostitution at the town, made her options difficult. She is now back in the capital in search of a job.
Closing the pay gap
A report by rescue.org has outlined the potential for refugees, especially women to generate substantial revenue for the economy. The research conducted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS), in collaboration with the international Rescue Committee (IRC) found that closing wage and employment gaps for refugee men and women, equalizing wages and employment rates between genders in these countries, could boost global GDP up to $2.5 trillion.
With oil finds occurring annually since May 2015, more refugees are likely to make their way to Guyana. Allowing refugees to work and paying them fair and decent salaries has the potential to boost the Guyanese economy significantly.