Thursday, March 27, 2008

The value of work (Updated)

A recent essay by Granma editor Lazaro Barredo, a regular on the Mesa Redonda television program, took Cubans to task for expecting something for nothing.

Economic improvement will only come when Cubans work more and Cuba produces more, he admonished. New resources “will not fall from the sky,” he wrote, “they will come from work, and may he who produces more earn a higher salary.” “Unfortunately there is a not inconsiderable segment of our society that…wants to live without working,” he added, “and considers that through the black market (meroliqueando) it will have everything by living off of others.”

He went on to note the complexity of ending Cuba’s dual-currency system, and the need to reduce imports of food and other goods.

Is the problem really that Cubans don’t want to work? Or is it that, responding to incentives and disincentives like people in any economy, they put their effort where it brings them a good return? I think it’s the latter. At any rate, a much more informative article in Barredo’s paper, one week later, put a spotlight on this very issue.

This second article makes Barredo’s point that Cubans have to join the workforce so that production can increase: “On the field, and not from the stands, we will solve the basic economic and financial problems that plague us.”

But the main thrust of the article is a description of an official study that found that one fifth of the labor force in Havana does not work, in spite of the fact that there are more unfilled jobs than there are idle workers.

Why is that? Those who administered the study got these typical responses: “I don’t work because they don’t pay me well,” “My Mom and Dad take care of me,” or the “business pays me more,” the latter an apparent reference to the black market.

“It hurts to think,” the article states, that the state provides education “without limit,” yet society does not receive the full benefit of the trained workforce. In the past year, 3,015 of Havana’s 17,610 technical and professional-level graduates did not show up for their initial job assignment and about 200 more quit soon after beginning.

Even jobs with modest incentive packages are hard to fill. The article gives the example of bus drivers who are paid 315 pesos per month, plus bonuses based on performance, plus 13 convertible pesos. Still, some of these jobs go unfilled.

In looking at the Raul Castro period, one has to note that there has been a change in the media. It’s still state-controlled, the droning Randy Alonso still reads Fidel’s commentaries word for word on the Mesa Redonda, and there are articles such as Lazaro Barredo’s. But there are also articles such as the one cited above, that explain the real problem confronting Cuban policymakers, and admitting truthfully that there is vast underemployment in the Cuban labor force.

How the government will deal with this problem is not yet clear. I’m sure Cubans will appreciate removal of each and every “prohibition” and regulation that Raul decides to remove, but those under discussion so far are not going to generate new jobs, nor are they going to change the incentive structure that keeps Cubans out of the formal labor force.

[Update: AFP reports on a Juventud Rebelde story (which I can’t locate) on a 2007 survey that found that 282,000 Cuban youth are neither studying nor working. One of the reasons was that job offers don’t meet their “hopes and needs” or don’t correspond to their educational background.]

[Photo: Old Havana, Calle Cuarteles]


Conchscooter said...

"We pretend to work; they pretend to pay us." A joke circulated in the late USSR.


The Cuban people have absolutely no incentive to "work more."

They see the inequalities, human rights crimes and corruption around them and realize quite quickly that "working more" means nothing - might as well steal and pilfer from the country store. A notion I whole-heartedly support. The regime has taken so much away from our people - we might as well steal what we can.

Mr. Barredo might as well go piss up a rope and keep living his life with blinders on.