Trade Unions in Cuba

International Union Rights | Tuesday, 3 January 2023

The International Centre for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR) has published a new article on trade unions and trade union rights in Cuba in the latest edition of their journal, 'International Union Rights'. ICTUR is an NGO, with accredited status with the UN Economic and Social Council and the International Labour Organisation's Special List of NGOs, which aims to defend and extend the rights of trade unions and trade unionists worldwide and to collect information and increase awareness of trade union rights and their violations. You can view the full issue here, with the article on Cuba found on pages 18-19.

The Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC, English Workers’ Cente of Cuba) has been the unified trade union federation of Cuba since 1939. Currently the CTC unites 15 sectoral unions organising over 80,000 workplace branches. The unions work at municipal, provincial and industrial levels. Unions are funded by members’ subscriptions, usually based upon their earnings. Every union has an elected committee at municipal, provincial and national levels.

Cuban law guarantees the right to form and join trade unions. Legally, a Cuban trade union’s constitution and rules must be approved by its members. Trade unions and their members remain central to the political system and the development of the island’s economy.

The CTC’s latest figures show that about 96 per cent of all eligible workers belong to trade unions. Cuban unions organise in both the public and private sectors of the economy. Women are well-represented. Latest CTC figures show that women comprise about 70 per cent of union membership in education, health and public sector unions.

Following Cuba’s restructuring of the economy from 2010 onward, many former state employees have found work in the private sector. Many have become self-employed. Rather than create separate unions for self–employed workers, the existing unions have recruited the self-employed. The CTC estimates that about 55 per cent of non-state workers are self-employed. Most of these workers belong to a union. There are currently about 1,500 branches for self-employed workers.

Individual Rights at Work

Cuban workers are entitled to a written contract of employment. Temporary and fixed-term contracts can only run for a maximum of three years. The working week is limited to 40–44 hours, based on an 8-9 hour day and a five-day week. Workers have a right to training, and to use two weeks of their annual leave entitlement for daytime education of their choice. Workers in the state sector are entitled to 30 days’ paid annual leave plus 10 days’ paid public holidays, as well as guaranteed weekly rest days. Private sector employees are entitled to a minimum of seven days’ paid leave, which is low by European standards, but comparable to private sector averages in the US, Mexico and China. Unpaid compassionate leave has been introduced.

Grievances, Disciplinaries and Workplace Representation

Grievances and disciplinary issues in the workplace are dealt with by workplace boards known as the Organs of Labour Justice (OLJ). Traditionally these comprised a representative from the union, one from management and a third, elected by the workforce. While this continues in many workplaces, some larger ones have a five-person committee, the majority of whom must be elected workers. Decisions of the OLJ can be appealed to the courts.

Cuba’s trade unions are recognised within the workplace. Unions have the right to a seat on company boards, facility time and office space for representatives. Each workplace is legally required to negotiate a Collective Bargaining Agreement with the union(s) who organise their workforce. This Agreement covers important issues like pay; health and safety, training and maternity provisions. According to the CTC there are currently 10,244 such agreements in existence. These agreements are legally binding. Every year the union and management must meet to check the detail of the agreement and negotiate any changes.

Health, Safety and Welfare

The right to health and safety at work requires employers to eliminate risks, provide training and supply adequate protective equipment and training. Individual workers and unions have the right to stop work that they consider to be dangerous. Overtime, limited and subject to union agreement, is paid at a premium rate – normally time plus a quarter. The 2014 Labour Code has enhanced maternity rights with protection from overtime and shift working as well as an hour’s paid time daily for feeding a baby up to the age of one year.

Collective Bargaining

Cuba has a national state sector salary scale established in consultation with the trade unions. This is based on qualification and includes a minimum salary of about 6,000 Cuban pesos per month. The Cuban Constitution supports the ‘socialist principle of distribution’ which allows for individuals to be rewarded according to their contribution. Local bonus schemes can be negotiated between unions and the employer then approved by the workers’ assembly. Cuba is working toward restoring the ‘socialist principle of distribution’ where incomes reflect the ‘quantity and quality’ of work. This laudable aim has been undermined by recent increases in food and commodity prices and the US blockade of the island.

Unions and Politics

Trade unions in Cuba have a defined political role in Cuban politics as one of the ‘mass organisations’, along with small farmers, the national women’s federation, and the students’ union. This gives unions a voice in Cuba’s parliament, the National Assembly. The unions manage mass consultations over government policy by convening meetings and organising responses to the National Assembly. Unions in Cuba chair the commissions that present candidates for the National and Provincial Assemblies. Crucially, the Cuban Constitution gives trade unions the right to be consulted over employment law as well as the right to propose new laws to the National Assembly.

The 2014 Labour Code

The Cuban constitution prohibits the ‘exploitation of man by man’ ie the accumulation of capital through exploitation of waged labour. It also guarantees the ‘right and duty to work’. Other fundamental rights include equal pay, a minimum salary, and non-discrimination (including sexual orientation – after a parliamentary amendment). Workers, including the self-employed, have the right to pensions; welfare benefits such as maternity leave, unemployment benefit and accident benefit are established. Workers have the right to individual participation at work through workplace assemblies and trade unions respectively.

In June 2014, Cuba replaced its 1985 Labour Code with a new version. The 2014 Labour Code began as a document discussed by the government and trade unions, who exercised their constitutional right to be consulted on legislation. A five month mass consultation then took place, involving nearly 70,000 workplace meetings. A joint national commission of the CTC, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, and the National Assembly analysed the workers’ submissions and agreed changes before the parliamentary debate. As a result of this process more than 100 changes were made.

The original draft inserted a new stage into the workplace grievance and disciplinary process giving exclusive powers to senior management. This was removed following the consultation. The draft proposal to permit workers to work all but 7 of their 30 days’ annual leave was amended to permit such work only in exceptional circumstances, and then only after consultation with the relevant union. Written contracts for private sector workers were made obligatory rather than merely ‘preferable.’ Provision was added for indefinite contracts for workers in cyclical occupations like tourism.

The 2014 Code elaborates the rights for non-state workers for the first time. Since 2010, self-employment includes a category of ‘contracted worker’ providing labour for another self-employed worker or business. Rather than cut these self-employed workers adrift, Cuban trade unions have sought to organise them and incorporate them, and their specific requirements, into the post 2014 trade union arrangements.

They are helped by the Cuban Supreme Court which has decided that the self-employed are not civil contractors but employees subordinated to an employer. The 2014 Labour Code gives contracted workers the right to written contracts, minimum salaries, maximum hours, rest periods, paid holidays and health and safety protection at work.

A new co-operative sector has also developed in Cuba. Alert to this, the 2014 Labour Code requires a worker to be offered membership of the co-op after working there for three months. Also, no more than 10 per cent of the working time of co-op can be performed by contracted workers.

The 2014 Labour Code restates the right to voluntarily associate and form trade unions. This right is described as existing ‘in conformity with foundational unitary principles’ – an implicit reference to the CTC and its affiliates. This reflects concerns at divisive breakaways in view of the USA’s stated intention to promote ‘independent’ trade unions in Cuba.

The new Code has extended the trade unions’ right to participate in company planning and control by adding the right to receive information from management (to raise the quality of worker participation). Attempts to limit facility time for trade union officials have been removed from the Code, which contains a new right to promote training for trade union representatives.

Active Participants or a Conflict of Interest

Attempts have been made to criticise Cuban trade unions in the past for their role in being active participants in the political process, while at the same time, representing their members. It has been argued that this apparent duality creates a conflict of interest for Cuba’s unions. Quite apart from misunderstanding the role of trade unions in a socialist country, this view is undermined by the evidence. The widespread consultation which led to the 2014 Labour Code and the number of amendments which were proposed and accepted, show that the unions were able to consult their members, conduct a vibrant consultation process and achieve genuine and positive changes to the laws concerning their working lives.

Cuban trade unions remain effective and relevant despite developments in the Cuban economy which have prompted changes in the structure of the island’s workforce. The CTC and its constituent unions continue to enjoy rights and influence that would be the envy of many of their counterparts elsewhere in the world.

Steve Cottingham is a lawyer and a member of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign Executive Committee (CSC EC). He has attended several lawyers’ conferences in Cuba and Adrian Weir is also a member of the CSC EC. He has led Unite delegations to Cuba and is the Trade Union Liaison Officer with Hornsey & Wood Green CLP.

More information

Read: What about the workers, Dr Steve Ludlam writes on the new Labour Code for CubaSí magazine.

Download Workers in Cuba: unions and labour relations an Institutions of Employment Rights pamphlet on Cuban trade unions here

Download our Trade Unions in Cuba Factsheet here

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