By Ernesto Perez Castillo (Progreso Semanal)
HAVANA TIMES — No matter how much it hurts us, we have no choice: surviving day by day and, better yet, getting to the end of the month and year in most cases and for the majority of human beings, inevitably passes through something called “work”.
This “work” business has so many implications here in Cuba and there are so many ways of looking at it which are the same in number as any sea urchin’s razor-sharp spikes. Working implies, among other things, that there is payment for the work being done. And this payment, at times, doesn’t even classify as such.
Seventeen years after the turn of the millennium, and a little more since the Cuban economy, which was already not going very well, plunged definitively in the ‘90s, talking about salaries in Cuba is still a euphemism. The generation that is now reaching fifty, who began their working lives at the beginning of this crisis, are proof of this.
Years ago, in the face of some management complaining that people needed to work more, someone who was young back then (and not so much anymore) rose up out of his seat and shouted out at the official: “Work, that’s the only thing I have done, and a salary, that’s the only thing you haven’t given me. My generation has been working for nearly 20 years receiving wages that are no good for anything, and they continue to work and work: in factories, hospitals and at schools. When are you going to stop telling us to work more? When are we finally going to receive our first real paycheck?”
To tell you the truth, there have been several attempts to try and resolve this problem. Wages have been increased for health professionals and also teachers (although to a lesser degree) and other critical sectors in Cuban society and its economy. However, these pay rises aren’t enough and sometimes it’s like not having anything at all as prices are also going up. Wages are so low to begin with that increasing them by 20, 30 or 60%, that it doesn’t bring about the desired result. These wages would need to be multiplied several times over in order for people to go and look at a frozen food section in a supermarket with some real chance of being able to buy anything.
As a result of this precarious situation, waves of workers have left their jobs and moved into other better-paid positions, sometimes within the same state-led sector, other times they move to foreign companies, sometimes to the self-employment sector and also into some “unrecognized” jobs. Which aren’t even recognized by the people doing them.
Just a few months ago, while I was fixing up my small apartment as best I could, I met someone who illustrates my point perfectly about how complex and twisted our concept of “work” here in Cuba has become. This is the person you call and give them a list of the things you need: x number of bags of cement, x of sand, x of ceramic tiles. This person is responsible for buying and transporting these materials, and in my repairs, he would carry them up the stairs, bag by bag on his back, to my apartment door.
One afternoon, I saw that he was worried: the bag of cement on his back and his eyes looking this way and that. I asked him what was wrong and he replied: “there’s a policeman that’s stopped on the corner and he’s got me nervous… you know, this job is everything I have… as I don’t work…”
That sentence made my blood freeze over… a lot of the country’s labor drama was summed up in that “I don’t work”. And with those words, I understood the long path we have ahead of ourselves to change our consciousness and perception of what “work” is when the person carrying a sack of 42kg of grey P-350 cement on his back tells you “I don’t work.”
This man, who only works seven days a week, who does his job well and in a timely manner, and his profits aren’t great either (he doesn’t live like a king, far from it), he also thinks that he doesn’t work. How much unwarranted blame is there in this man’s head? How many opportunities lost because of this terrible belief that working is only working for the state or with a contract?
This is just one example, because there are thousands. On the other side of the working chain are assistants, for example. Every artist with some kind of success has normally two or three assistants who work for them, but their work isn’t officially recognized by the State, thereby depriving them of many social services.
There are many other people who work taking advantage of what tourism agencies forget or opportunities they haven’t capitalized on, offering hundreds of simple services to tourists that these appreciate, but they also organize walks, visits and day-trips organizing all of the logistics, food and accommodation this entails. These people, who work and a lot!, do so always feeling the heavy shadow of the sword of Damocles on their heads because they “don’t work”. This is another one of our realities that needs to be understood and new regulations need to reflect this on our island.