Cuban union leader: Layoffs going slowly

Cuban government and union officials are acknowledging for the first time that a drive to fire half a million unneeded state workers has gotten off to a slow start, due to a lack of communication within the Labor Ministry and incompetence among the thousands of commissions set up to decide who gets the ax.

Jose Manuel Castanedo, the top union leader for the capital, Havana, told a key labor assembly that the delay has been exacerbated by disagreements between the union and administrators at the various state-run entities where the layoffs are to take place. Labor Minister Margarita Gonzalez added that unspecified mistakes by the commissions have often frozen the process.

The closed-door weekend assembly was reported Monday by Trabajadores, the official newspaper of the 3 million-strong Cuban Workers Confederation. It is the only labor organization allowed on the communist-ruled island.

"When procedural errors are made, everything must start again from the beginning, no matter how many workers are involved," the newspaper said.

President Raul Castro announced the layoffs as part of a major overhaul of the Cuban economy, saying the state could no longer afford to pay people who didn't work. The firings amount to about one-tenth of the island's labor force.

The government has also allowed tens of thousands of Cubans to get licenses to work in the private sector.

At the time the layoffs were announced, officials said they were to be completed by March 31, but there is little evidence they are happening in great numbers.

The accounts by Castanedo and Gonzalez mark the first time officials have acknowledged the delays publicly.

The newspaper stressed that most of the workers will be offered alternative jobs rather than fired outright, and that all will have the opportunity to appeal their layoffs.

Cuban officials have used the word "disponible," or "available," to describe the status of laid-off workers, indicating that the newly unemployed will be in a position to fill other jobs that are more vital for the economy.

The newspaper said some workers in the tourism, health and sugar industries have already been fired or reassigned, but gave no numbers.

A member of a workers' commission in the capital told The Associated Press last week that she and other commission members are still being trained on how to implement layoffs in her workplace, and that they have yet to receive any order to begin actually firing people.

"Nothing is happening," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear she could lose her job for discussing the matter with the news media.

While anxiety is high, the few workers who have been told their jobs are being eliminated say they are still waiting to hear what will become of them.

"Every week I ask and they tell me the same thing: that we are waiting to hear," said a teller at a state department store. She also spoke anonymously for fear of repercussions.

She said that like most other workers, she expected to be offered an alternative job, most likely in agriculture or construction.