Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cubans shun government's low-paying jobs

Miami Herald
Posted on Sat, May. 31, 2008
Cubans shun government's low-paying jobs

Loraicys is 27 years old and has never held a job. She is not alone.

As Raúl Castro embarks on an ambitious plan to kick-start the communist nation's economy, he faces a daunting challenge: Many Cubans simply do not work.

Decades of measly salaries and vast government subsidies have kept many young people off the labor rolls because it's more lucrative to hustle on the street. Others live comfortably enough off money sent from Miami and elsewhere.

Loraicys turns down neighborhood janitor positions in hopes of higher-paying work at nearby resort hotels, where she also could earn tips in dollars.

''I am not going to tell you something different. There are jobs here in Cárdenas where I live. Doing what? Cleaning hospitals for 150 pesos [$7] a month,'' said Loraicys, a single mother. ``For 150 pesos, I would rather stay home with my kid. I am willing to work really hard -- but not for nothing in return.''

While Cuba struggles to increase productivity, it must also find a way to entice hundreds of thousands of people to get a job. The dilemma is one of the profound systemic difficulties Castro faces as he tries to create a so-called modern socialist economy.


The government says there are plenty of jobs -- just low-paying ones Cubans won't take. Even educated professionals would rather work in the tourist industry as waiters or taxi drivers, which earns them far more money than state jobs that usually offer about $10 a month.

Loraicys said she has blanketed all the state agencies that run tourist resorts near her home with résumés, but she lacks the high school diploma required for even menial work. So she spends most days hanging out in front of her house, watching horse-drawn buggies go by in this colonial city east of Havana known as Ciudad Bandera, because it is where the national flag was first raised on May 19, 1850.

''If Raúl Castro wants to crack down on people who do not work, then he should offer real jobs,'' Loraicys said. ``Don't you think people would prefer to have independence, to have something they can be proud of?''

Officially, Cuban government figures show its unemployment rate is just 1.9 percent, the lowest in Latin America. At the same time, government statistics show just 4.8 million of the 6.7 million working-age people are ''economically active.'' And a survey conducted by the state-run Juventud Rebelde newspaper showed that just in Guantánamo province, on the eastern tip of the island, there were 18 times more unemployed people than official figures reflected.

The National Bureau of the Young Communists League said 90 percent of unemployed youths would like to go to school or work if they found ``acceptable options.''


According to Granma, the communist party newspaper:

• 20 percent of the working-age population in Havana is unemployed.

• Nearly half of them turn down jobs when they are offered.

• 17 percent of the more than 17,000 recent technical school graduates did not show up for the jobs they were offered. Another 200 of them stopped coming in after a few months.

''Unfortunately there is not an inconsiderable segment of our society that wants to live without working and considers that through the black market, it will have everything by living off of others,'' Granma editor Lázaro Barredo wrote in a recent editorial.

When Raúl Castro took office on Feb. 24, he announced an increase in state pensions and wages. In April, economic commentator Ariel Terrero said on state television that the government would lift caps on wages, an important shift that defied the socialist ideology that long dictated policy here.

''For the first time, it is clearly and precisely stated that a salary does not have a limit, that the roof of a salary depends on productivity,'' Terrero said, according to The Associated Press.

He added that he did not view this as a violation of socialism, but rather ``from each according to his work to each according to his ability.''

Many Cubans told The Miami Herald they did not work because it just was not worth it. The dual currency system, which pays state salaries in nearly worthless pesos and sells most consumer goods in a dollar-based tender called the CUC, means average salaries don't cover the cost of basic goods such as shoes, which can cost three times as much as a $10 monthly wage.


Eduardo, 30, a stagehand who got his first job four years ago, said most of his friends worked for the first time when they were in their late 20s -- after emigrating to Florida.

''Why was I going to work? The money they would pay me was not going to meet my needs,'' he said. ``My mother in Orlando sent me $100 a month, and with that I was set.''

Experts say Castro needs to overhaul the pay scheme to give Cubans the incentive to work.

'In their work life, Cubans have two approaches to labor. In the state sector, for many, their attitude is: `They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work,' '' said Archibald Ritter, who teaches about the Cuban economy at Carleton University in Canada. ``Yet they will even pay to get jobs where it's possible to get bribes or steal. Lots of Cubans work hard. They work very hard at quasi-legal, unofficial activities.''

Ritter said the government has to create opportunities for more people to run private businesses and have clear incentives to produce and earn more coveted CUCs.

''For decades, Cuba tried to create the new socialist man, and what they created instead was a nation of entrepreneurs,'' he said.

Even as wages increase, laws on the books are intended to stimulate productivity. As interim president, Raúl Castro mandated efficiency at the workplace and instituted penalties for people who were late or did not stay their full shift.

The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who wrote this report and the surnames of some people quoted because the reporter did not have the journalist visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island.

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