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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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‘I’m on the move!’: NASA’s Perseverance rover takes its first test drive on Mars | Science & Tech News

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NASA’s Perseverance rover has taken its first drive on Mars, just weeks after landing on the Red Planet.

The one-tonne robot travelled 21.3ft (6.5m) in a mobility test that the space agency said will allow the checking and calibrating of the rover’s systems and instruments.

Once Perseverance really gets going, it is expected to undertake regular commutes of 656ft (200m) or more.

Anais Zarifian, Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mobility test bed engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said: “When it comes to wheeled vehicles on other planets, there are few first-time events that measure up in significance to that of the first drive.

“This was our first chance to ‘kick the tyres’ and take Perseverance out for a spin.”

And the news was good: Ms Zarifian said the rover’s six-wheel drive “responded superbly”, adding: “We are now confident our drive system is good to go, capable of taking us wherever the science leads us over the next two years.”

Perseverance was moving for about 33 minutes, first driving 13ft before turning in place 150 degrees and reversing 8ft to find its new parking space.

The rover landed on Mars on 18 February to much celebration in the US and across the world, becoming the ninth spacecraft since the 1970s to achieve such a feat.

The landing came after a 300 million-mile journey over nearly seven months, as part of a mission to find out whether there was once life on the mysterious planet.

Scientists believe that if there ever was life on Mars, it would have been 3 billion to 4 billion years ago, when water still flowed there.

Two spacecraft from the UAE and China have also swung into orbit around Mars in recent weeks, a sign of the growing global interest.

Perseverance carries 19 cameras – more than any other interplanetary mission – and has sent 7,000 photos back to earth already.

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The rover is also kitted out with a navigation system to help it avoid dangerous boulders and ravines, a range of scientific instruments for performing experiments, and a miniature helicopter that will become the first rotorcraft to fly on another planet.

The samples of rock and soil it collects will be sealed in tubes and left in a well-identified place on the surface for a future mission to collect.

Next up on Perseverance’s diary are more tests, and the calibration of its scientific instruments and longer test drives, as well as the experimental flight test programme for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter it is carrying.



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Outrage in India over latest ‘honour killing’ as father beheads daughter after finding her with man | World News

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Outrage over so-called honour killings in India has been reignited after a father who found his daughter in a “compromising position” with a man severed her head with an axe – and then took it to his local police station.

The man walked through the streets of Hardoi district in northern Uttar Pradesh state carrying his daughter’s head, confessed to what he had done upon his arrival at the station, and was arrested, police said.

Superintendent Anurag Vats told the Thomson Reuters Foundation: “The man said he saw his daughter in a compromising position with a man and he beheaded her in a fit of rage.”

Shocking images of him carrying the 17-year-old girl’s head through the streets of Uttar Pradesh were shared online, reigniting urgent calls for the introduction of laws specifically dealing with so-called honour killings.

Madhu Garg, vice president of the All India Democratic Women Association’s Uttar Pradesh branch, said: “The issue of the right to choice needs immediate attention and a separate law should be made for dealing with honour killing.”

Human rights groups say thousands of women and girls are killed across South Asia and the Middle East each year by family members angered at perceived damage to their “honour”.

Perceived offences can include eloping, fraternising with men, or any transgression of staunchly conservative values regarding women.

Last month, a woman was burnt alive by her family members over an inter-faith relationship in Uttar Pradesh, local media reported, quoting police officials.

India officially recorded 24 honour killings in 2019, but campaigners say government statistics on honour killing mask
the true scale of the crime, with women at greater risk than men.

Almost 70% of honour killings in India are women, according to Arockiya Samy Kathir, the founder of non-profit campaigning group Evidence, which has for years worked on honour killings in south India.

In 2018, the Indian government asked all states to set up special cells comprising of police and welfare officers, as well as a 24-hour helpline, to help couples facing harassment or those seeking protection.

But campaigners say compliance has been poor.

High-profile cases of violence against women in India have sparked mass protests in recent years, although many of them are not related to honour killings.

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‘Today is the day I will die’ – Nun who opposed Myanmar military says she begged them for mercy | World News

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A nun who knelt in front of armed security forces in Myanmar to stop them firing on civilians has said she was prepared to die to save protestors’ lives.

In extraordinary scenes in Myitkyina, Kachin State, Sister Ann Roza Nu Tawng can be seen pleading with police and soldiers not to shoot.

The intervention has been called Myanmar‘s “Tiananmen moment”.

Sister Ann Roza Nu Tawng
Image:
Sister Ann Roza says there are ‘brutal night arrests’

In footage from 28 February, a shot can be heard after a nun is seen walking towards the heavily kitted-out officers.

Sister Ann Roza, 45, told Sky News she thought she would die but was prepared to sacrifice her own life to save others.

This is her story in her own words:

On Sunday, I was at the clinic. I was giving treatment on that day as the other clinics were closed. I saw groups of people marching by. They were protesting.

Suddenly I saw police, military and water cannon following the protesters.

Then they opened fire and started beating the protesters. I was shocked and I thought today is the day I will die. I decided to die.

I was asking and begging them not to do it and I told them the protesters didn’t commit any (crime).

I was crying like a mad person. I was like a mother hen protecting the chicks.

Sister Ann Roza Nu Tawng. Pic: Myitkyiana News Journal
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Sister Ann Roza kneeling before the troops. Pic: Myitkyiana News Journal

I was running towards where they were beating the protesters. It was happening in front of this clinic. It was like a war.

I thought it would be better that I die instead of lots of people.

I was crying out loud. My throat was in pain, too. My intention was to help people escape and be free to protest and to stop the security forces.

I asked them not to continue arresting the people. I was begging them. At that time I was not afraid.

If I had been scared and run away, everyone would be in trouble. I was not afraid at all. I was thinking of the girl from Naypyitaw and the one from Mandalay.

I was thinking of all the fallen souls from the country. I was worried what was going to happen to the people of Myitkyina.

Sister Ann Roza Nu Tawng
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Sister Ann Roza says people ‘have to defend themselves’

When they reached the Banyan tree, I was calling them (the authorities) and telling them: ‘Please kill me. I don’t want to see people being killed.’

I was crying out loud and they stopped for a while.

One came to me and said: ‘Sister, don’t worry so much, we are not going to shoot them.’

But I told him: ‘They can also be killed with other weapons. Don’t shoot them. They are just protesters.’

In my mind I didn’t believe that they were not going to shoot them, as in many places I’ve seen they have shot people dead.

I brought (a protestor) to the clinic and gave him treatment. The police almost captured another one as he had fallen down. I stopped the police and asked them not to continue. That’s why the police didn’t. Otherwise, they would have arrested him and dragged him from there.

Sister Ann Roza Nu Tawng. Pic: Myitkyiana News Journal
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Sister Ann Roza says the military are ‘not the guardians of the people’. Pic: Myitkyiana News Journal

I feel like they (the military) are not the guardians of the people as you have seen what’s happening to the people.

People are not safe and there are brutal night arrests.

I felt really sad when I saw the video of a mother of a young one crying next to a dead body.

I also saw an ambulance was destroyed and medics were beaten with a gun.

They are supposed to protect us but our people have to defend themselves. It’s not safe. They (the security forces) arrest and beat those who they don’t like. They kill them.

There’s no one to protect Myanmar people.

People have to defend themselves and help each other.

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