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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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Man ordered to pay mother £75m after assisting ‘schemes’ by billionaire father to hide divorce money | UK News

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A man has been ordered to pay £75m to his divorced mother after helping his father hide money and assets from her, a court has ruled.

Temur Akhmedov, 27, worked as his fathers “lieutenant” against Tatiana Akhmedova, 48, according to a High Court ruling.

In 2016, Ms Akhmedova was awarded a 41.5% share of 65-year-old Farkhad Akhmedov’s £1bn-plus fortune.

Temur Akhmedov said he was sure he could recover his initial losses through more trading
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Temur Akhmedov was ordered to pay £75m

This amounts to about £453m, and is thought to be the biggest award of its type.

However, judges have heard that so far only about £5m has been received by Ms Akhmedova – and her Russian businessman ex-husband has not “voluntarily” paid a penny.

Ms Akhmedova is pursuing her former spouse in courts in multiple countries as she says he is hiding money from her, using their son to help him.

The court heard the billionaire had moved the ownership of his £340m superyacht Luna into a trust in Lichtenstein.

Mrs Justice Gwynneth Knowles made the ruling against the couple’s son at the Family Division of the High Court in London, saying vast sums of money had been sent to him.

She said: “The wife has been the victim of a series of schemes designed to put every penny of the husband’s wealth beyond her reach.

“Their eldest son, Temur, confirmed in his oral evidence that the husband would rather have seen the money burnt than for the wife to receive a penny of it.

“Regrettably, those schemes were carried out with Temur’s knowledge and active assistance.

“I reject his case that he was a mere go-between for his father: the evidence indicated otherwise.

Tatiana Akhmedova was awarded £453m in 2016
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Tatiana Akhmedova was awarded £453m in 2016

“Temur told me in his evidence that he had helped his father protect his assets from his mother’s claims.

“He was, indeed, his father’s lieutenant.

“Temur has learned well from his father’s past conduct and has done and said all he could to prevent his mother receiving a penny of the matrimonial assets.

“He lied to this court on numerous occasions, breached court orders, and failed to provide full disclosure of his assets.

“I find that he is a dishonest individual who will do anything to assist his father, no doubt because he is utterly dependent on his father for financial support.”

The younger Akhmedov’s spokesman said: “Like millions of young people, Temur has been caught up in the break-up of his parents’ marriage. He never sought to take sides or get involved but inevitably found himself sucked into the vortex of a bitter family dispute.

“His subsequent actions were only ever motivated by his desire to end the war between his parents.

“While he fundamentally disagrees with this judgment, he would consider it a price worth paying for should it lead to a reasonable settlement between the parents he loves.”

Superyacht Luna owned by Russian billionaire Farkad Akhmedov is docked at Port Rashid in Dubai, United Arab Emirates March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
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The superyacht Luna owned by Farkhad Akhmedov is thought to be worth around £340m

Ms Akhmedova said in a statement: “Today’s judgment is the inevitable conclusion given Farkhad’s failure to behave honourably in the first instance.”

And her ex-husband Farkhad Akhmedov said: “Entirely predictably, given its original wrong and misguided judgment, the London court has ruled in favour of visiting ‘the sins’ of the father on an innocent and loyal son.”

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Number 10 rejects Juventus chair’s claim Boris Johnson saw European Super League as ‘attack to Brexit’ | Politics News

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The chairman of Italian football giants Juventus – one of the clubs who attempted a breakaway European Super League – has suggested Boris Johnson was so opposed to the plan because it was viewed as “an attack to Brexit”.

Andrea Agnelli, one of the chief architects of the closed-shop competition for elite clubs, on Wednesday admitted the idea of a European Super League could no longer proceed.

It follows the decision by six English clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur – to withdraw from the plan.

Spanish side Atletico Madrid and Italian rivals AC Milan and Inter Milan have also abandoned the scheme.

Andrea Agnelli has said that it the Super League can no longer go ahead without the involvement of the English clubs
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Juventus chair Andrea Agnelli was one of the chief architects of the scheme

The project turned into a humiliating spectacle for the clubs involved, with their plans collapsing within 48 hours of them first being announced amid a furious backlash from fans and politicians across Europe.

Mr Johnson had vowed to explore “every possibility” to stop the “very damaging” European Super League, as he mulled what new or existing laws could be used to put a halt to the plans.

And Mr Agnelli suggested the UK government’s intervention had pushed the six English clubs to withdraw.

“I have had speculation to that extent that if six teams would have broken away and would have threatened the EPL (Premier League), politics would have seen that as an attack to Brexit and their political scheme,” he told Reuters.

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Super League ‘not up and running’, says founder

However, Mr Agnelli added he remained “convinced of the beauty of that project”, despite the likelihood it would no longer proceed.

Asked about the Juventus chairman’s comments, Downing Street dismissed the suggestion that Mr Johnson’s opposition to the European Super League was linked to Brexit.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “I would reject that.

“The prime minister was very clear on why it was right for the government to step in and take action that contributed to these clubs stepping back from this proposal, which was the importance of football at the heart of communities up and down the country.”

Speaking in the House of Commons earlier on Wednesday, Mr Johnson had told MPs that “one of the most worrying features about the European Super League proposals is that they would have taken clubs that take their names from great, famous British towns and cities, English towns and cities”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions
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The PM branded the proposal ‘very damaging’

He added the new competition would have turned English clubs “just into global brands with no relation to the fans, to the communities that gave them life and that give them the most love and support”.

He promised that a “root and branch investigation into the governance of football” – to be conducted by former sports minister Tracey Crouch – would look at “what we can do to promote the role of fans in that governance”.

Conservative MP Saqib Bhatti has asked Mr Johnson to ensure that “football clubs must put fans at the heart of their decision-making”.

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Multi-millionaire, 90, conned out of £23m by phone scammers in Hong Kong | World News

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A 90-year-old multi-millionaire has been conned out of £23m after falling prey to a phone scammer.

The conman allegedly told the woman, from Hong Kong, that her identity had been used in a serious criminal case in mainland China and that she should transfer her money to a new bank account so officials could investigate.

According to the South China Morning Post, she is the biggest known victim of a phone scam in Hong Kong history.

Police arrested a 19-year-old university student late last month in connection with the crime and officers froze bank accounts containing HK$9 million (£830,000), but the rest remains missing.

According to the Central District Crime Squad, the woman received a call from a man claiming to be a mainland law enforcement official in July last year.

He told her once she had transferred her money and the investigation had been completed, she would get it all back.

So rife are phone and internet scams in Hong Kong that in 2017 a dedicated unit, the Anti-Deception Co-ordination Centre, was established in order to to pool police resources for tackling the crimes.

The South China Morning Post said reports of phone scams alone had risen by 18% to 200 in the quarter of 2021 with fraudsters pocketing more than HK$350 million (£32m) so far this year.

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