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Venezuela has a new 'forced labor' law that can require people to work in fields

President Nicolás Maduro has signed a decree that allows the labor ministry to order "all workers with enough physical capabilities and technical know-how" to join a government drive to increase food production in the context of severe shortages.
Photo by Miguel Gutiérrez/EPA

International human rights activists are complaining that new laws have introduced forced labour in Venezuela.

"A new decree establishing that any employee in Venezuela can be effectively made to work in the country's fields as a way to fight the current food crisis is unlawful and effectively amounts to forced labor," Amnesty International said in a statement released on Thursday.

President Nicolás Maduro signed a decree at the end of last week that gives powers to the labor ministry to order "all workers from the public and private sector with enough physical capabilities and technical know-how" to join a government drive aimed at increasing food production.


They can be required to work in the agricultural sector for a 60-day period that can be extended for another 60 days "if the circumstances require it."

Shortages of basic goods have become a normal part of life for most Venezuelans ever since the country was plunged into an economic crisis by the plummeting oil price. Food shortages have become particularly acute in recent months, accompanied by violent demonstrations and violent responses to these by the police.

Earlier this month, 120,000 desperate Venezuelans took advantage of a weekend's temporary relaxation of border controls to flood into the Colombian city of Cúcuta to shop for basics. Local stores reportedly ran out of supplies in a few hours.

Antonio Pestana, chief of Venezuela's farming association, told reporters last month that only 25 percent of agricultural land is actually being farmed.

Last week's decree promises to boost production by increasing the workforce of companies in the sector. It orders that these companies should pay the salaries of the workers loaned to them.

Related: There's no sign of an end to Venezuela's food crisis

Maduro's government has repeatedly blamed the shortages in Venezuela on an "economic war" waged by right-wing businesses supported by US imperialism who seek to bring down his socialist government.

The latest decree states its aim is to "guarantee food supply, social justice, and democracy," and claims it is necessary as "a defense against the economic war." It comes at a time when President Maduro is also struggling to hold off efforts by the political opposition to force a referendum on whether he should remain in office.

"The new decree completely misses the point when it comes to finding ways for Venezuela to crawl out of the deep crisis it has been submerged in for years," Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, said in Thursday's statement. "Trying to tackle Venezuela's severe food shortages by forcing people to work the fields is like trying to fix a broken leg with a band aid."

Related: Venezuela's President Declared a State of Emergency Because He Fears a US Coup Attempt

Follow Alan Hernández on Twitter: @alanpasten