Cuba’s Food Service Workers

Yenisel Rodriguez

Sandwich vendor.

One time I paused to note how an ice cream vendor served me without lifting her head; she never even looked at me.  It was a shame, because she would have gotten a flattering compliment.

“Food service here in Cuba has been reduced to the basic interaction required to collect the payment from the customer.  Nothing else matters,” I told myself.

What’s more, it is surprising how little importance attention to the consumers has to do with how the State provides compensation to workers in the food service industry here.  Concern is often limited to the function demanded of these workers by the State: selling.

Selling is seen as part of a process in which the consumer is nothing more than a necessary step.  In fact, many food service workers don’t concern themselves with the amount of money that the State pays them; it’s because this sum —approximately $8 dollars a month— isn’t so important.

The true wage is received when they sell products at their establishment under the table; these sales bring in approximately $28 a month.  Therefore, only a small part of their earnings are derived from sales at their workplaces to regular customers.  Sales to them are assured — so why give them good treatment?  Such treatment is reserved for friends and family.

Some mistreated customers point to psychological and criminal reasons to explain such lackluster behavior.  Would a Cuban food service worker in London be able to provide service that was less cold in that country?  Though I don’t believe that English gastronomy is the solution we’re looking for, I immediately understand that the root of the problem doesn’t reside in pathologies or crime, but in the way in which our societies are organized.

It’s likely that if that otherwise insensitive worker were to serve me ice cream in a London shop, I would receive a look directly in my eyes; I might even get a “have to nice day.”  This wouldn’t be because she was flirting with me or found me attractive).  Instead, it would be a question of cost and benefit.

There are days when I curse under my breath at the discourtesies of some service worker.  Today however, I can find understandable explanations for their behavior.  I consider them sisters and brothers of the cause, and I hope that one day we can make peace.

Hopefully this reconciliation won’t occur in an American-style McDonalds, though nor would I like for it to happen in one of those dumps where almost daily I pick up a hamburger that many try to imagine are made with meat.

3 thoughts on “Cuba’s Food Service Workers

  • In both London and Cuba service workers are employed for low wages. Service therefore is affected by this lack of employee ownership of the workplace.

    In Berkeley, California there is a cheese and pizza business called the Cheeseboard. It is employee owned as a cooperative collective. The workers there are happy, productive and respected in the community. Their customers get superb, friendly service.

    Cuba could easily have tens of thousands of such cooperatives, if the official state ideology did not view direct worker ownership of the instruments of production in a negative light.

  • No, you wouldn’t get much better treatment in London from food service workers. It is thought of here as an unskilled and temporary job – no one wants to do it and so no one does it with grace or attention to the customer, at least not in the low-end establishments, like selling ice-cream or in cafes. Waiters in up-scale restaurants would be a different matter – they would be fired from their jobs if they were not servile and attentive, so it is a economic question. At McDonald’s, they would also lose their jobs if they did not greet and treat customers the way they are trained to do.

    In the past, losing your job was not something that happened often in Cuba, but you may be about to experience this lack of security in some areas. I send my best wishes.

  • Good service in places like Canada, the US or England is usually driven by the allure of getting something for it. A private business is driven by the desire for repeat business, and the worker is driven by the desire for tips and or promotion.

    You can see this difference even in Cuba. My wife and I we like kings on the resort, because the resort workers knew that we were there for an extended stay, that we’d most likely see them again, and that we’d probably give them a tip. In our case, several of the resort workers really stood out as having gone above and beyond their basic duties to make our stay pleasurable, and we made sure to compensate them accordingly. Many resort visitors even give gifts at the end of their stay to the workers who stand out as making their stay memorable. Off the resort when we adventured on our own, it was totally different. We were treated much the way your article began; the person serving hardly even lifted their head to look at you.

    I was puzzled as to what the difference was. Sure a big part of it is there is very little private enterprise, but what about tipping? Do they not tip at all in Cuba? Is it considered only something that the tourists do? I realize that disposable income is scarce, but wouldn’t the occasional extra Peso make a difference in the attentiveness of the servers?

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