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Underpaid Venezuelans skipping out on work to make ends meet

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On many days, Ramon Medina has no choice but to skip work to make ends meet.

Like around half of Venezuelans, he earns the minimum wage — the equivalent of around $3 a month — so whenever his cellphone buzzes with a tip, he sneaks away from his job as a hospital orderly for the chance of taking home a government-supplied food bag on which he depends to feed his family.

He’s not the only one hustling. On any given day, he estimates a third of his co-workers at Vargas Hospital in Caracas are also stepping out for a lucrative side job or spending hours in line to buy flour and cooking oil at bargain-basement prices impossible to pass up. That leaves few back in the hospital caring for sick patients, the 55-year-old said.

“You do what you can to help out,” he said of his job, but added, “People are discouraged.”

Along with four-digit inflation, widespread shortages and a recession deeper than the U.S. Great Depression, Venezuela’s economy is now being ravaged by a new scourge: mass absenteeism.

In recent weeks, newspapers and social media have been filled with reports of work stoppages at the Caracas subway system or the state-run oil company as workers scraping by on meager paychecks can’t be bothered to show up for work. Private companies complain they can’t find enough workers to punch the clock, exacerbating a standstill in what few assembly lines are still running.

The crisis is spiraling out of control even as President Nicolas Maduro is seeking a second term in a snap election his supporters recently set for April 22, drawing condemnation from the U.S. and other countries who say he’s flouting Venezuela’s democratic tradition. Yet, Maduro has turned the economic crisis to his advantage, analysts say.

Douglas Barrios, a Venezuelan economist at Harvard University, said that in 2012, before the country sank into recession, the country’s monthly minimum wage equaled $300, on par with those of other Latin American nations and enough to support a family with rent and food.

That has since dramatically changed, he said, noting that today it takes a worker nearly two weeks to earn enough to buy two pounds of powdered milk.

Normally, voters would turn their backs on a government under such circumstances. But Maduro is locking in support by making voters dependent on discounted government food bags and by announcing wage hikes before energized live audiences on nationally televised broadcasts.

“You support us and you have access to food,” Barrios said, explaining what he sees as the government’s strategy. “If you don’t support us, you go figure out how to make ends meet.”

The government has accused opponents of waging an “economic war” on Maduro and point to recent sanctions by the Trump administration banning lending to the government as further proof of sabotage. Far from throwing in the towel, it says it is expanding social programs like the food parcels to protect the poor.

“The revolution guarantees the people are protected,” Maduro tweeted this week.

Jenny Mejia, 24, said she’s not fooled. She recently walked away from her low-paying job at a lunch counter to sell bottles of shoe glue stacked on a table along a busy street in Caracas. It takes her about a week to earn the equivalent of the monthly minimum wage.

“With Maduro, more hunger is assured,” said Mejia, who receives the government food bags but vows she won’t support his re-election bid.

Socialist Venezuela’s battle with absenteeism isn’t new. The late Hugo Chavez in 2001 signed a decree that came to be known as the Law of Labor Immobility that makes it but impossible for employers to fire a worker without their consent.

But the problem has grown worse as the economy has unraveled and price distortions have become more pronounced. For many Venezuelans, the choice is going to work for a few pennies a day or scavenging for the declining number of products sold at controlled prices and reselling them on the black market for several times their official value.

Venezuela no longer publishes labor statistics, but workers in Caracas’ busy subway estimated that as many as 70 percent of their colleagues don’t show up some days. The country’s state-run oil firm PDVSA — virtually the only source of hard currency — is losing workers due to low wages and a lack of safety, said Venezuelan economist Francisco Monaldi, a Latin American energy policy expert at Rice University in Houston.

“Those who can, leave the country,” Monaldi said. “Others simply do not show up to work.”

Companies juggling to stay in business have no choice but to remain flexible.

At Danubio bakery one day recently, some of the 300 employees squeezed past one another preparing pastries, cakes and lasagna. Many said bus fare eats up their paychecks despite earning 30 percent more than minimum wage.

For many, the two meals a day they get at work make it worthwhile.

“Coming to work is a kind of relief,” said Andrew Kerese, who runs the successful family business with five bakeries across Caracas. “Here people have breakfast and lunch.”

However, many long-time employees have fled the country and called Kerese from abroad to tell him they’re not returning. Others struggle getting to work because the buses are full or don’t run, or they can’t find spare parts for their cars. Some days, word spreads of a market selling discounted flour, so everybody leaves to get in line.

Antonio Golindano’s daily journey into work at the bakery starts at 4 a.m. The 71-year-old has tied on his apron and sifted flour there for four decades. But he said the hardships make it harder for him every day.

“I do the impossible to come and fulfill my duty,” he said. “It is my obligation to come to work.”

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Gender gap: Ageing societies give more advantages to men than women, researchers say | World News

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Men have more advantages than women in ageing populations, an international study has found.

Researchers say the gender differences in societal ageing suggest men have better resources to cope with the challenges of getting older.

Different gender roles within society not only shape women’s and men’s life opportunities but also their experience of ageing, the research suggests.

Worldwide, the number of people aged 65 years and older is expected to more than double in the next 30 years, rising from 703 million in 2019 to 1.5 billion in 2050.

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Age UK on difficulties facing elderly after lockdown

The study, by researchers from the National University of Singapore and Columbia University in America, found men are especially advantaged when it comes to income and wealth.

They are more likely to be financially secure, have paid work and spend fewer years in ill-health than women in later life.

The first of its kind, the research investigated gender differences in the experience of people growing older in 18 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which includes the likes of the UK and the US.

Women across the countries analysed were shown to have a three year longer average life expectancy than men, but spend more years in poor health.

They are also more likely to live alone at the end of their lives and earn less than men.

A disproportionately greater risk of disability and ill-health in women increased their likelihood of needing long-term care, the study found, as well.

Researchers used the latest data from the OECD and World Bank between 2015 and 2019 for 18 of the 35 OECD countries with sufficient data to develop a gender-specific ageing index.

The new index accounts for five categories that capture social and economic factors affecting the quality of ageing: wellbeing, productivity and engagement, equity, cohesion and security.

Using the system, researchers calculated the overall index and individual category scores that range from 0 to 100 for men and women.

A higher score suggests a successfully ageing society.

Key differences between men and women in ageing societies according to the study:

  • Men have better resources to cope with the challenges of ageing
  • Women have a three year longer average life expectancy than men
  • Men are especially advantaged when it comes to income and wealth
  • Women spend more years in poor health
  • Men are more likely to be financially secure
  • Women have a greater risk of disability and ill-health, which increases their likelihood of needing long-term care
  • Men are more likely to be engaged in paid work
  • Women are more likely to live alone at the end of their lives
  • Women earn less than men

Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and Japan did well for both genders with an overall index score of 66 or above for men and 55 or above for women.

Countries in much of eastern and southern Europe were at the bottom of the rankings.

The UK achieved an overall index score of 57 for men and 47 for women. It also had the largest difference in wellbeing scores between the two genders, with a score of 74 assigned for men and 61 for women.

America’s overall performance score was 55 for men and 47 for women.

Both the US and the UK performed poorly in the study, indicating growing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth.

Lead author Dr Cynthia Chen, from the National University of Singapore, said: “Ageing societies reinforce the prevailing gender norms in which men continue to be allocated the majority of opportunities, resources, and social support.

“With the world’s population ageing at an unprecedented rate, and the ratio of older women to older men expected to increase, there is an urgent need to challenge the structural and policy biases that favour men.”

The authors have suggested four measures to help address gender bias and inequality in societal ageing including assessing minimum income requirements for healthy living in older people and minimum pensions.

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The mystery of the whisky bottle, the US secretary of state and the department searching for answers | US News

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The US State Department is investigating the apparent disappearance of a bottle of whisky worth nearly $6,000 (£4,320).

The Japanese government gave the bottle to Mr Pompeo in June 2019 when the then-secretary of state visited the country.

The department reported the investigation in its annual accounting of gifts given to senior US officials by foreign governments and leaders.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, sits down for a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, in Osaka, Japan, Friday, June 28, 2019, during the G-20 summit. At right is the secretary's senior adviser Michael McKinley. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via REUTERS
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Mike Pompeo visited Japan as secretary of state in June 2019 and it is believed he was given the bottle then

It noted that it could find no trace of the bottle’s whereabouts and that there was an “ongoing inquiry” seeking an explanation.

A spokesman for Mr Pompeo said he was unaware of the gift and the inquiry into its whereabouts.

It is thought the bottle of whisky was given to Mr Pompeo while he was attending a G20 summit in Japan, along with then-president Donald Trump.

But the state department’s Office of Protocol, which records gifts given to US officials, said that, while every other gift had been recorded, there was no record of the whisky.

If a gift is over a certain value, the recipient can give it to the National Archives or another government entity, or they can keep the gift and reimburse the Treasury Department.

Among the items given to Mr Pompeo during his time as secretary of state were two carpets worth a total of $19,400 (£14,000) from the president of Kazakhstan and the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates.

Mr Trump and his wife Melania received more than $120,000 (£86,400) worth of presents from foreign leaders in 2019, including an Ottoman Empire rifle worth $8,500 (£6,120) from the Bulgarian prime minister, a bronze sculpture of an Arabian horse from the crown prince of Bahrain worth $7,200 (£5,100), and a statue of an Arabian oryx worth $6,300 (£4,500) from the emir of Qatar.

The Office of Protocol said all of these were given to the National Archives.

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Greece wildfires: Families reflect on devastation as homes are destroyed – ‘if my mother saw this she would cry’ | World News

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I spot George Kyriakopolous sitting in his car, the door open to blackened surroundings and smouldering earth.

To his left is his house. To the right, the one owned by his 95-year-old mother and 98-year-old father. His parents’ property is burned beyond repair. His own house is badly damaged.

George is a man in shock. He cannot believe what he is seeing. Twenty four hours earlier he was watching a wildfire at what seemed like a distance. In 10 minutes, he says, the fire was upon them in the village of Varympompi, north of Athens.

George Kyriakopolous lost his home, his parents home and his dog in the fire.
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George Kyriakopolous lost his home, his parents’ home and his dog in the fire

He tells me they had to drive through the flames to get out. He is one of the few residents here who have made it back to check on their properties.

George tells me: “If my mother saw this she would cry. She would cry.”

And I think any of us would. Homes that have been lived in and cherished for years were destroyed in minutes. Land cultivated through hard work, now scorched.

The burned-out homes of residents
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The burned-out homes left behind

And this scene is repeated in street after street in this village where hundreds were forced to leave as one of the biggest wildfires in Greece this week penetrated Varympompi. Most who live here have not been allowed to return.

Residents have lost their homes and cars in the fires
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People have lost their homes and cars in the fires

The area is still regarded as extremely dangerous and most residents can only watch the skies from where planes and helicopters dump vast containers of water on the area and hope things will be okay.

Sadly for many of them that will not be the case. Coming back here will be traumatising. It certainly has been for Rula Mantis who shows us around the charred remains of the fruit vegetable store she runs with her boyfriend. So much of it is destroyed and she wonders how they will ever recover.

Rula Mantis's boyfriend owns the grocers in the village that has been ruined by the fires
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Rula Mantis’s boyfriend owns the grocers in the village that has been ruined by the fires

She’s angry the property was allowed to burn but understands fire crews faced impossible pressure.

She tells me: “It’s very hard. It’s a lot of money you have to spend to make this from the beginning. You can’t save anything. As you can see, there’s nothing left.”

The massive flames which lit up the night sky here when the fire reached its peak may have quelled now but the danger for this village isn’t over. Everywhere we drive or walk in Varympompi the ground is smouldering.

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High temperatures have caused the wildfires in Greece – with people being forced to evacuate their homes

Smoke threatens to ignite into fresh flames which on scorched earth could spread again. It is why residents are taking their fire extinguishers and buckets to douse where they can.

But they know they are up against challenging elements. Temperatures are predicted to remain high in Greece in the days to come when all villagers hope for is rain.

They also know they face the pain of seeing neighbours and friends return to a village where there will be so much pain to confront.

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