Cuba’s Workers: Between a Rock & a Hard Place

By Rosa Martinez

The massive layoffs have Cuban workers and their families worried about the consequences. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Oct.  8 — The workforce restructuring plan that will soon be implemented in Cuba is worrisome to everyone: State employees as well as retirees, homemakers, self-employed workers and students.  In one way or another, they will all be affected by the half million who will shortly find themselves without jobs.

Cuba’s leaders —through various meetings with activists of the Communist Party of Cuba, the Young Communist League and affiliates to the different unions— have called upon the nation to face this transformation with greater dedication to work, which can be translated as meaning more “labor discipline,” the better use of the work day and the more rational use of resources to improve efficiency and productivity.

I identify with the call to be more productive in each one of our work initiatives.  No country in the world can sustain itself without a solid economy, and such as economy is not possible when five workers are paid for what can a single person can do.  That is the essence of the restructuring.  The island’s economy is unsustainable if social security is paid to a family in which at least one of its members can work, or if the State continues to pay 60 percent of the wages of thousands of workers who produce nothing, or if we don’t contribute to the production of food or the reduction of imports, and if we don’t pay attention to basic measures of efficiency and quality.

I am against people who are lazy, users, opportunists and those who are irresponsible and undisciplined.  However I wonder if the managers of our companies and State institutions have analyzed the different social problems that cause many of the country’s workers to involuntarily waste the work day.

Obstacles to ‘fulfilling’

When I think of the repetitive slogan “To be more efficient, more punctual, to take better advantage of our time, to produce more,” I necessarily think of the thousands of workers like myself who cannot always fulfill this call, no matter how hard we try.

Having a family and getting to work on time can be a difficult juggling act in Cuba. Photo: Ihosvanny

Yesterday, for example, my acquaintance Mirulgia got to the university at noon.  She had been suffering back aches for several days and was forced to go to her family doctor clinic when she could no longer take the pain.

Since neither the doctor nor the nurse was present, she had to go to another clinic.   Between one thing and another, she didn’t get to work until nearly noon.

How many of us Cubans have experienced the same thing? How many countless hours have we wasted waiting to be seen at a non-urgent-care medical facility, or have had exams or other tests carried out that frequently we have had to repeat because they generally turn out  negative?  How many times have we had to repeat visits to the dentist because of a lack of materials, a lack of water, or of paper to wrap the sterilized instruments, or simply because of the lack of a specialist?

Someone commented to me recently that in a meeting in the headquarters of the Party in Guantanamo, they analyzed the issue of the number of workers who had visited the hard currency “dollar store” during the workday.  Now then, if you’re a worker and you need to buy a pair of shoes, toiletries or any other product, what other time are you going to do it if all the stores close at 5:00?   There’s no doubt that you have no other alternative than to do the same thing as everybody else: to escape during the morning or leave early to be able to take care of your most urgent needs.

I know several women with children in daycare centers and elementary schools who are frequently absent because those institutions shut down early due to shortages of water or gas, or their children are made to stay home because of a seasonal cold.  What can they do if they don’t have anyone who can take care of their kids or simply don’t have the money to pay for a babysitter?

Excessive bureaucracy weighs on the worker

The same thing happens with those who need some paperwork at the housing office or with social security or the many other legal requirements that, in addition to driving anyone crazy, could result in them receiving an administrative sanction.  Excessive bureaucracy is an evil.  It’s eating away at society and does more harm to the worker.

Fumigator. Photo: Caridad

But what do they tell us in the thousands of unproductive meetings that are held at many workplaces during the workday?  These are repetitive, they don’t solve any of the problems that affect workers, but they’re held month after month after month.

The transportation situation is another factor that weighs against the performance of ordinary Cubans.  At least in Guantanamo City, where I live, there are few local bus routes, so it’s almost impossible to get to work on time. Those living in outlying areas have it worse as they must perform gymnastic feats to punch the clock on time and later get home for their families.

On top this all, it also affects the food problem, but that’s almost a whole other story.  It’s no secret to anyone that the subsidized products that can be bought with the ration book barely cover five days out of any given month, the rest of the time we have to scuffle around like rodents to come up with something to eat.  And if you wait till after work to go to the market, it’s ensured you’ll find little or nothing when you get there.

Lastly —and for me the most important— the low wages fail to satisfy the basic needs of workers, which is why many of them have lost interest in work and fulfilling their commitments.  This is a disincentive for production and quality, without mentioning theft and the lack of professionalism, which result for the same reason.

2 thoughts on “Cuba’s Workers: Between a Rock & a Hard Place

  • Ron, thank you for your comment.
    I read some parts of your book “Cuba at Sea”. i think noone better that you reflected the days of the the so called Special Period. I also think that will be many more years before we can reflect our reality in the Cuban media, less in the provincial mass media.

  • Dear Rosa,
    You narrate the real Cuba as most of us who live there, or have lived there as in my case, experience it. What is heartening is that you can now say so, at least in this media form which is limited. I hope you can find ways to get these experiences in the mass media.

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