Topsy-turvy world of work

Can it be good for a country when the informal tips and rake-offs received by tourist guides can reach 100 times the pay of a teacher in higher education? Our guide on a recent tour of Cuba, whom I will call Carlos, is trilingual and a former university teacher. He works in tourism,  the industry saving the Cuban economy from complete collapse, because it provides enough income to support his family. University teaching does not.

Havana's architectural gems are a big draw for tourists, without whom the threadbare economy would have already ripped apart.

It’s as if a lecturer in the UK on £30,000 a year could step up to £3 million a year by learning Russian and translating for groups of visiting oligarchs. Not a good comparison perhaps, as the oligarchs presumably bring their own staff, and because £30,000 is a good salary in Britain… while in Cuba, teachers at all levels are not paid a living wage. Actually, it’s hard to find good comparisons with Cuba, because Cuba is so different.

Cuba is said to be special because of its free education and health services, but how much use is a free service when there are acute and persistent shortages of resources? Too few teachers, scarce books, scant modern drugs. Doctors were prohibited from switching careers into tourism right from the start of the ‘Caribbean paradise’ venture in the 1990s, and they suffer financially as a result. In the schools, the shortage of teachers is such that many lessons are transmitted by TV.

The financial burden of providing public services has forced the hard-up Cuban state to backtrack from the ‘jobs for all’ policy introduced after the 1959 Revolution. Carlos told us that more than 300,000 people had applied to start their own mini-enterprises since 180 new occupations were classed as open for self-employment. The liberated occupations are mainly manual ones: the professions like medicine, law and education remain fully in the public sector, alongside state security and the armed forces. This ‘protection’ of the professions is bad news for the incomes of the well-educated people who work in them. £12 a month, anyone?

The issue of work in Cuba could fill many books, but it is clear from the numbers of people inside and outside their homes in the day that the official unemployment rate of about 1.8% is a mythical statistic. Various acquaintances put the real figure at around 20%. This figure includes those who choose not to work because relatives overseas send them cash.

In addition, there is massive under-employment. Walking up Calle Brasil (formerly Teniente Rey) in the oldest part of the city, Habana Vieja, I saw overstaffed artisan workshops where employment was evidently prioritized above efficiency. In offices, clerks sit and gossip. Not all the time, of course, but frequently. The multiple documents required to accomplish a simple transaction also create work, most of it unproductive and unnecessary. How much longer can this continue?

Later, in a bus travelling along Simon Bolivar (previously Reina) and Salvador Allende (Carlos III) between Habana Vieja and the Plaza de la Revolución, we rumbled past cisterns and broken pipes and equally broken little factories. Several houses were receiving the emergency DIY attentions of their inhabitants, seeking to arrest the dilapidations of fifty years without repairs. It would probably be cheaper to knock down the whole lot and start again, although that would be an act of cultural vandalism. Even relatively modern buildings, like the Habana Libre hotel in Vedado, which opened in 1958 as the Havana Hilton, are in urgent need of repairs. The upper floors were closed because they were unsafe, we were told.

Rebuilding Havana would certainly create thousands of jobs, but the funds for regeneration on such a massive scale are lacking within Cuba. There is capital among the exile communities across the water in Florida and elsewhere in the USA. Is it too much to hope that 2012 will signal a new era in reconciliation between the two governments, so unproductively estranged for so long?

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2 Comments on “Topsy-turvy world of work”

  1. Peter says:

    It’s interesting how your attitudes toward Cuba have changed the more you’ve seen and learned about the place. I could offer everyone a free education if I didn’t have to supply frivolous extras like books and teachers.

    • The same applies to health care.
      However, given the scandalously low wages, far below subsistence level, if ‘free’ education and healthcare were withdrawn, at least two-thirds of the population would not be able to afford education or medical care. Answers please!


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