By Marc Frank
CAMAGUEY, Cuba (Reuters) - Cuba's program to slash 500,000 state jobs nationwide has barely gotten off the ground in the provinces, as officials scramble to provide alternatives and deal with unease and anger over the layoffs.
Confusion about how to implement the cuts, a lack of alternative jobs and worker resistance have led President Raul Castro to drop a deadline to carry out the plan by March.
The layoffs, aimed at cutting expenditures by the debt-ridden government and increasing productivity on the Caribbean's biggest island, are a key part of economic reforms Castro says are critical to the survival of Cuban communism.
Some 3,000 jobs have been cut in eastern Granma province since the program started in October, a similar number in adjacent Santiago de Cuba and 1,000 in central Camaguey, local officials told Reuters last week.
But that is just 10 percent of the 70,000 jobs they said were slated to go by March in the three provinces and already the experience has proved wrenching for a society where a secure job had been guaranteed for decades under a centrally run socialist economy.
"We never know now if tomorrow we will wake up with a job or not and it was never like that before," said a middle-aged woman in Santiago de Cuba, asking that her name not be used.
A companion reform measure lifting many curbs on operating small private businesses and working privately in skilled trades was originally designed to absorb the workers who have yet to be let go.
As of January 31, 113,000 people nationwide had taken out licenses to work on their own, including 15,000 in the Camaguey, Granma and Santiago provinces.
But Marta Adan Hernandez, the director of labor and social security in Camaguey province, said there is room for many more people working on their own.
"There is no limit and many services still need to be provided to the population," she told Reuters.
Castro's reforms envision a growing "non-state" retail and farming sector and more efficient state-run companies. They are expected to be approved at a Communist Party congress in April.
The massive lay-offs have reportedly come under fire during tens of thousands of meetings held across the island as a prelude to the congress.
The program is being described as a "reorganization" of the labor force because in theory laid-off workers are declared "available" and offered other jobs or they can lease fallow state land or become self-employed.
LAIDOFF WORKERS DECLARED "AVAILABLE"
Twenty-nine nurses at one of nine health clinics in Camaguey, upon being declared "available" last week, were offered jobs at local hospitals.
"Some are taking the offer and others are going home because at the clinic you work eight-hour days while in hospitals you work a 12-hour day or night shift and it often turns into 24 hours when your relief doesn't show up," said Anaida, a nursing supervisor.
That was not the case for bookkeepers at 20 restaurants in Santiago de Cuba attached to the Tourism Ministry. Their jobs were simply eliminated and all 20 let go, with their four supervisors taking over the work.
"They declared me 'available' January 4 and sent me home with a month's salary and then 70 percent for another month," 40-year-old Maria Eugenia said. "They haven't offered me anything. They haven't even called me or any of the others.
Granma's provincial vice president for economic affairs, Raul Lopez Rodriguez, insisted the reorganization would continue, but admitted only 10 percent of those laid off could be absorbed by a shrinking state sector.
The remainder will have little choice but to return to the land or strike out on their own.
"You are going to see a reorganization of the labor force to improve efficiency and those who remain must be paid much more," he said. He estimated that average monthly wages, now about 440 pesos ($20), would need to double to motivate workers.
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Jackie Frank)