Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, accompanied by his daughter Rosa Virginia, right, waves upon his departure in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday. He is travelling to Cuba to continue his cancer treatment.

Caracas - President Hugo Chavez signed a measure on the eve of Tuesday's Labour Day holiday which would shorten Venezuela's work week from 44 hours to 40.

The bill, which also introduces a raft of other workplace reforms that Chavez called “historic”, still has to be approved by the judiciary.

The measure is the product of “a long process of fights and battles”, Chavez said on television late Monday, signing it just before departing for Cuba, where he is being treated for cancer.

“I am very happy,” said Chavez of the bill presented to him by a commission that studied the proposed reforms. “I made a few very modest changes, but I feel that we have a new, historic law.”

Among other changes, the reforms will double the penalties against employers who fire workers without sufficient cause, and increase the length of mandatory maternity leave to six months, extending the benefit to parents who adopt an infant.

Opposition leaders have cried foul however, saying the reforms were drafted in secret and never debated in Congress.

Representatives from the business world have also criticised the measures, which they say were drawn up without input from the private sector.

Chief among the critics was businessman Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state and centre-left presidential candidate for the united opposition against Chavez, who said the changes would hurt Venezuela's already struggling business sector.

Capriles said the bill comes “just five months before the elections”, and is an “effort to create a mirage” to confuse voters.

The proposed reforms still must be approved by the country's high court, but if agreed are likely to enter into force just as Venezuelans go to the polls to vote for the next president in October.

Chavez, in power since 1999 and running for reelection as a “revolutionary socialist”, is the most prominent face of the left in Latin America.

The ailing president has fashioned himself as the leader of the common working man and polls show him still leading Capriles.

But he is battling public fatigue as well as an unstable economy, soaring inflation, rampant street crime and growing concerns that his failing health may leave him unable to keep up with the demands of the presidency. - Sapa-AFP