14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, September 26, 2018 — Rigo, Suandy, and Alberto arrive each morning at a corner in the Capdevila neighborhood in Havana, with the order to look for breeding places of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito. Barely 17 years old, they are part of the Youth Labor Army (EJT), an unarmed version of Active Military Service (SMA) that is also being questioned in the constitutional reform debates.
Founded in August of 1973 by Raúl Castro, thousands of young people under the age of 20 have ended up in the EJT over the past four decades. Their labors have concentrated fundamentally in agriculture, construction of houses, and the repair of railroad tracks. But the hard work conditions and the low compensation have put it at the center of the criticisms.
“Every day my son works for more than eight hours in a furrow producing vegetables and foods that are then sold in the Youth Labor Army markets at a much higher price than he and his companions receive for so much work,” Xiomara, a resident of the Boyeros municipality, lamented last week at a meeting to discuss the reform of the Constitution.
All over the country, and especially in the Cuban capital, the farmers’ markets managed by EJT have displaced in space and in the amount of offerings others that were privately or cooperatively administrated, which opened following the economic reforms of the 90s. Although they have slightly lower prices than their competitors, the quality of the merchandise in these businesses doesn’t please all their consumers.
“They’re an unspecialized workforce and that shows in the deterioration of production, but also in the numerous injuries that they suffer when they have to work in the fields or on railroad lines,” adds Xiomara, while at the table that presided over the debate a man punctually wrote down each phrase.
Young people who complete high school and earn a place at university are only required to spend a year mobilized in the SMA and, as a general rule, are placed in the EJT, where they only receive military training in the so-called “preliminary,” which lasts a few weeks.
Then they are relocated to EJT units, many of them without dormitories and from which they can leave every afternoon to sleep in their homes. However, their members are considered active military members and during their time in the Army they must comply with a chain of command that functions under the rules of that institution.
“Although I am happy that my son doesn’t have to have a gun, I believe that the new Constitution should offer more work options to the conscripted young people, including other tasks that they might be better at, like social work or incorporation in industrial production,” pointed out the woman.
Xiomara’s point of view was backed by various residents with adolescent children who lament that the EJT has turned into “a lucrative business where young people work hard in horrible conditions and receive salaries that aren’t enough for anything,” according to another of the meeting’s attendees.
“At least they no longer have to go to Angola as soldiers, but it’s necessary to dignify the work of these young people, because what they earn doesn’t even mean 15 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos, roughly $15 USD) each month, let alone 20, but in the EJT markets they raise much more. Where does that money end up?” asked the resident. The Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) don’t report their resources and rarely publish the amounts of the profits earned with the work of their conscripts.
In 2009 thousands of young people in the EJT were assigned to the repair and maintenance of railroad lines, work for which it is difficult to find a voluntary labor force due to the difficult conditions in which it takes place.
On the outskirts of Bayamo, in the Sakenaff camp, Ruadny was one of the many young people in the area who held for the first time in his life “a pickaxe and shovel to lay a railroad tie,” he recounts now. “I wasn’t even 18 when they sent me to that unit and the truth is that after one week there I would have preferred to go to a military company,” he assures.
Demobilized two years ago from the EJT and with his sights set on emigration, the young man has no qualms in assuring that, at moments, he felt like “a slave without rights.” Ruadny remembers that they received a short training from the Eastern Railroad Company but that they arrived at the field “with very little knowledge of the work.”
“We had many cuts because, of course, the majority of the kids had never handled a pickaxe in their lives and I don’t remember that there was a union structure to protect us,” he laments. Ruadny came to make more than 500 Cuban pesos monthly for his work, less than $25. “I’m a musician, what I love most is the guitar and after that I couldn’t even play a note because my hands were so destroyed.”
The Government has deployed EJT conscripts to all those areas where the workforce fails because of the bad work conditions or low salaries. They can be seen in the coffee harvest, in clean-up operations after hurricanes, and in the building of state-owned facilities, but also in the sugar harvest, the maintenance of highways, and the remodeling of dams. The so-called “antivector” campaign, agriculture, the setup of electric lines, and communal services round out their tasks.
In 1999 a report made public during the International Work Conference in Geneva required Cuban authorities to be more transparent about the mechanism by which Cuban young people can opt to be part of the EJT and “to choose can constitute a useful guarantee.” The body reminded the Island that it needed to suppress “the use of forced labor as a method of using the workforce with the goal of economic promotion.”
For Ruady the deficiency of that right remains. “It’s true that now you can spend your military time far away from shrapnel, but they are still treated like soldiers, whoever doesn’t obey goes to the dungeon,” he assures.
Translated by: Sheilagh Carey
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