People stand in line as they gather at a validation center during Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) second phase of verifying signatures for a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Diego Oré and Daniel Kai
CARACAS (Reuters) - When Venezuelan customs worker Jose Antonio Arriaga signed a petition seeking a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro, he suspected it could cost him his job.
His fears were confirmed last month when he received a letter notifying him that he had been fired from by the government tax and customs agency known as Seniat after 21 years and had also been stripped of his retirement benefits.
"Their goal is to remove those who are manifestly opposed to them," Arriaga, 53, said in an interview last week, after he travelled to Caracas from the southern city of Puerto Ordaz to describe his situation to members of the opposition-led parliament.
Hundreds of public employees say they have been sacked in recent days for signing in favour of the recall against Maduro, according to interviews, a list tallied by a human rights organisation and local media reports.
Such dismissals appear to violate a 2015 presidential decree prohibiting employers from firing workers until 2019.
"Once I got to the office, a person from human resources came to deliver a dismissal letter," said Johan Olivo, 45, who worked for 23 years at Corpoelec, a power company created in 2007 when the electricity sector was nationalized.
"We are being laid off, basically because we signed for the recall."
Olivo said he was a supporter of late President Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer in 2013. But he signed a petition to end Maduro's term early due to anger over the country's economic crisis.
Seniat, Corpoelec and the information ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Low oil prices and a collapsing socialist economy have left Venezuela suffering from triple-digit inflation and chronic product shortages, helping fuel the opposition's recall campaign.
The current dismissals mirror 2004, when a signature drive to recall then-President Chavez led to thousands of complaints that petitioners were being fired, denied jobs or even blocked from entering government offices.
Chavez himself later said he opposed the use of such lists to make personnel decisions, but Socialist Party leaders continue to openly support the practise.
"We will review (the signatures) one by one, if there is director of Ministry X, Y or Z signing to recall Nicolas Maduro, they must leave their position immediately," said Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello said in June.
(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)