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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

PRASA workers: Freedom of speech is not for sale

Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority Workers belonging to the Independent Authentic Union’s Eastern Division gathered in front of the water utility’s facilities in Humacao on Thursday to express the mounting dissatisfaction they feel over the treatment they’ve received. (Richard Gutiérrez/The San Juan Daily Star)

The UIA Eastern Division employees of the public corporation continue to press their demands

By Richard Gutiérrez

Thursday offered a reminder that labor struggles on the island are not limited to the San Juan metropolitan area.

The STAR reported earlier this week on a protest led by Independent Authentic Union (UIA by its Spanish initials) workers who were demanding respect, partly in the form of proper compensation, from the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA). The water infrastructure workers didn’t leave their demands on the steps of the Labor and Human Resources Department in San Juan on Monday, however. The UIA’s Eastern Division also decided to make their voices heard, and on Thursday they stood in front of PRASA’s facilities in Humacao and expressed all the dissatisfaction they feel over the treatment they’ve received.

Some of the UIA members on hand at the gates of the facility, amid alternating heat and rain, talked to the STAR about their take on the situation, and also related what happened after UIA President Luis de Jesús Rivera met Monday with Labor Department officials on the matter of collective bargaining.

“The Authority asked us to remove the [message] we wrote on the street [“U.I.A. Exige Respeto” (UIA Demands Respect)] and after that is done, they would start bargaining,” said Javier Ramírez Machin, a UIA operations delegate. “It isn’t fair to us that they want us to remove the letters, we are simply using our freedom of speech in a correct and respectful way, all we’re doing is asking for respect, which is what we want. We want the Authority to honor our pay and all the benefits they’ve taken away from us. We’ve been taking abuse for many years.”

Ramírez Machin detailed many other reasons the water workers are protesting, some which were previously reported in Tuesday’s STAR.

“Besides the diet benefit [meal compensation], our pay is disgustingly low, extra hours have been in effect as well,” he said. “Now they contract private companies to do our job. It is truly undignifying; our commitment is to the people of the island and it is unacceptable what they are doing to us. No matter what, we will stand tall and fight the good fight.”

When asked whether or not private companies were a threat to PRASA employees, the union official said he believes that “they have the right to bring food to the table.”

“All we ask from private companies is respect,” Ramírez Machin said. “Believe it or not, sometimes we have to go fix up jobs that these private companies perform, because these people don’t have the experience. It’s not practical for the authority to hire private companies, pay them, just so we must go fix up the job they couldn’t perform to begin with.”

“Honestly, I call on the governing board of the authority to respect the employees,” he added. “We don’t have to get into any of these situations.”

Ramírez Machin believes the union workers are very much united and are getting all the support they need from the UIA.

Union member Javier Vélez said regarding the low pay: “Our job is not only difficult, it’s dangerous; there are many risks involved in working with sewers, not just risks of sickness, but risks of death.”

“We work in ruptures [that] can crumble, and we can get stuck buried underground,” he said. “Many of our colleagues have had to retire because they’ve been stuck underground before when excavations crumble. Even with these high-risk situations, we still get paid federal minimum wage when we first enter the authority.”

“The collective [bargaining] agreement was the only increase in pay we had, which gave us hope to at the very least support our families,” Vélez said. “You go to Home Depot and these people start at $12 to $15 an hour. We get paid $10 an hour when we first start out, if we’re lucky, because many people get paid $8 to $9 hourly to start.”

Vélez added that PRASA employees have no benefits because of the labor reform law.

“All of our benefits are gone because of that law,” he said. “Our pay is trash. I have colleagues working in the authority for over 20 years and they are still getting paid $10 hourly. To top it all off, they’ve reduced overtime pay as well, and our working conditions are unmanageable. There are not enough vehicles for us, [and] there are no tools, either; we have to bring our own tools sometimes just to solve certain pipeline problems. Sometimes we have to buy them because we don’t have them at hand. A few days ago, I had to buy a clamp with my own money to hold a pipe in place on a bridge; I had to bring in my own tools to solve the problem.”

“Our working conditions are horrible and $10 an hour is not enough to sustain any family nowadays,” Vélez added.

Vélez also told the STAR that the workers weren’t as angry before because they had other benefits, but now that they don’t have those benefits, it is much harder to survive working for PRASA.

Apart from employees leaving to work for other companies, on and off the island, the deteriorating labor situation has a devastating impact on the mental health of employees.

“The situation in Humacao is no better than any other municipality; we’ve told social workers here that this issue could kill someone, if somebody’s mental health suffers enough,” said Miguel Hernández Resto, an ex-president of the UIA’s Humacao chapter. “One of our colleagues from Humacao committed suicide by hanging himself because of these issues; his name was Mr. José Santana. The authority must come here and fix this before it gets worse and we lose someone else.”

“We provide service to the people seven days a week,” Hernández Resto added. “They have even reduced the amount of overtime pay from double-pay to time and a half. Even though we have the support of many, there are a select few that don’t support us because PRASA has bought them off. Mark my words, if they don’t solve this now a central protest stoppage will happen. Operators and labs will start halting and then we will all go together. That’s our strategy.”

“We are using our freedom of speech, asking us to remove the letters [on the pavement] and saying they’ll start working with us after that are simply sorry excuses, because this is our freedom of speech,” the current treasurer of the Humacao chapter said. “Those words will soon fade away with time; it’s an immature excuse to stop all negotiations.”

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