Wednesday, May 7, 2008

On the job

What would you expect to see in a Cuban newspaper article that rounds up man-on-the-street opinions on workplace issues?

Maybe opinions like these: that Cuba’s only real economic solution lies in hard work; that not just the embargo and the Soviet collapse, but also “wrong decisions made at home” have hurt Cuba’s economy; that Cubans have job security, education opportunities, and equal pay for men and women in the same jobs.

Those views, all somewhat predictable and in line with messages that officials are delivering, were indeed stated in a long Juventud Rebelde article that sampled youth opinions across the island on the occasion of the May 1 workers’ holiday.

Maybe less predictably, the article also cited Cubans’ opinions such as these:

  • Labor unions are ineffectual and don’t serve as counterweight to company management.

  • Food served at workplace cafeterias is not good.

  • Hours are wasted in “excessive meetings.”

  • Productivity is impeded by lack of equipment and supplies.

  • Labor discipline – showing up for work on time – can’t be achieved where public transportation is not reliable.

The article cited a Pinar del Rio worker who called for greater “social recognition” for those who produce goods. Then:

The same [recognition] was asked by Avilio Hidalgo of Las Tunas for trabajadores por cuenta propia [self-employed entrepreneurs] like himself. “Many of us feel as if we are badly regarded by the people. This in spite of the fact that we work according to the law and pay our taxes. Some think that those who do not work for the state are delinquents. Saddest of all, some government workers who by law are supposed to protect us, harass us all over the place, as if we were enemies. That way of thinking has to change, because we are not anti-social. We too contribute to society.”

When it came to pay, and the need to achieve compensation levels that are in line with Cubans’ true cost of living, Jose Antonio Martin of Ciego de Avila was one of many who called for a link “between the effort one makes and the money one receives.” “It cannot be,” Martin said, “that someone who doesn’t work as hard as others, and is not disciplined, earns the same.” The article cited a few workers from enterprises that do offer pay incentives because they are in a reform program (perfeccionamiento empresarial) that requires pay scales that vary with workers’ output and the enterprise’s profitability.

And there were several comments that touched on a real long-term cost that the dual currency system imposes on the Cuban economy: economic incentives that cause people to abandon fields where they have high levels of training, and to opt for anything that earns hard currency. One sugar industry employee worried about the “migration of professionals” away from jobs for which they were trained: “People are moving over to jobs in the economía emergente [hard-currency sector] because they are paid more.”

What does this all mean?

Your guess is as good as mine, but I can easily see a return under Raul Castro to the perfeccionamiento program to shape up state enterprises, and also some more moves to improve purchasing power.

The favorable mention of private entrepreneurs is unusual in Cuban media – recall Fidel Castro’s 2006 speech where he all but called them cheats, parasites, and energy hogs – but it would be an encouraging sign if we see similar press coverage, and new policies that would allow this sector (study here, pdf) to expand. An opening to greater self-employment and entrepreneurship is probably the most rapid, no-cost option for generating new jobs and higher family incomes in Cuba’s economy.

No comments: