Jobs for all? A pillar of communism wobbles as Cuba confronts a costly,
bloated work force
ANNE-MARIE GARCIA Associated Press Writer
4:09 p.m. EDT, July 16, 2010
HAVANA (AP) — At a state project to refurbish a decaying building in Old
Havana, one worker paints a wall white while two others watch. A fourth
sleeps in a wheelbarrow positioned in a sliver of shade nearby and two
more smoke and chat on the curb.
President Raul Castro has startled the nation lately by saying about one
in five Cuban workers may be redundant. At the work site on Obispo
street, those numbers run in reverse.
It's a common sight in communist Cuba. Here, nearly everyone works for
the state and official unemployment is minuscule, but pay is so low that
Cubans like to joke that "the state pretends to pay us and we pretend to
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Now, facing a severe budget deficit, the government has hinted at
restructuring or trimming its bloated work force. Such talk is causing
tension, however, in a country where the words "neoliberal job cuts" are
sacrilege and guaranteed employment was a building block of the 1959
revolution that swept Fidel Castro to power.
Details are sketchy on how and when such pruning would take place.
Still, acknowledgment that cuts are needed has come from Raul Castro
"We know that there are hundreds of thousands of unnecessary workers on
the budget and labor books, and some analysts calculate that the excess
of jobs has surpassed 1 million," said Castro, who replaced his ailing
brother Fidel as president nearly four years ago. Cuba's work force
totals 5.1 million, in a population of 11.2 million.
In his nationally televised speech in April, Castro also had harsh words
for those who do little to deserve their salaries.
"Without people feeling the need to work to make a living, sheltered by
state regulations that are excessively paternalistic and irrational, we
will never stimulate a love for work," he said.
Indeed, the process of labor reform may already have started, albeit slowly.
Workers in the tourism sector say some of their colleagues have been
furloughed during the lean summer months, while others have been
reassigned to jobs on state-run farms.
"Since we are now in the low season, the hotel where I work has sent
many workers home for two or three months," said Orlando, a chef in
Varadero, a sand-and-surf enclave east of Havana.
"It's very hard because you're left with no salary at all," said
Orlando, who like almost all state employees, didn't want his full name
used to prevent problems at work. Unemployment benefits don't exist in
Cuba. He added, "I'm lucky since I'm still in my job."
Veronica, a receptionist at another Varadero hotel, said she feared she
may be sent home in August, when her resort will be only half-occupied.
"Sometimes they offer alternatives, to study in a particular course or
another job," she said, "but sometimes, when (workers) are sent into the
agricultural sector for instance, they just quit."
With the government giving no details of its thinking, rumors have
spread that as many as a fourth of all government workers in some
industries could lose their jobs or be moved to farming or construction.
But Labor Minister Margarita Gonzalez has promised that "Cuba will not
employ massive firings in a manner similar to neoliberal cutbacks."
The government has moved to embrace some small free-market reforms. It
handed some barbershops over to employees, allowing them to set their
own prices but making them pay rent and buy their own supplies.
Authorities have also approved more licenses for private taxis while
getting tough on unlicensed ones.
The global financial crisis, and the $10 billion in damage inflicted by
three hurricanes in 2008, have forced authorities to run a deficit of 5
percent of GDP, leaving them unable to pay back credits received from
China and elsewhere.
Cuba slashed spending on importing food and other basics by 34 percent
to $9.6 billion in 2009, from $12.7 billion the previous year. But so
far, the moves have not been enough to rein in the deficit.
Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuba economics expert and professor emeritus at the
University of Pittsburgh, said Cuban officials have spent months
debating cuts in the labor force and economic reforms. He said they know
what's needed, but face "a problem of political viability."
Various government perks like cars, gas, uniforms and office supplies
have become incentives to bloat the payroll, since they are based on the
size of a company's work force.
But low pay means low productivity. On Obispo street, a state-run
cafeteria sells heavily subsidized soft ice cream and pork sandwiches
for the equivalent of a few American pennies — meaning wages and tips
are so tiny that the staff is completely indifferent toward customers.
Three waiters sit at the counter cracking jokes. A fourth is the only
one working, making coffee for three tables. Nearby, a cashier stares
into space, a cook flirts with a scantily clad teen and a supervisor
sits idly by.
The state employs 95 percent of the official work force. Unemployment
last year was 1.7 percent and hasn't risen above 3 percent in eight
years — but that ignores thousands of Cubans who aren't looking for jobs
that pay monthly salaries worth only $20 a month on average.
Salvador Valdes Mesa, secretary-general of the nearly 3 million-strong
Cuban Workers Confederation — the only Cuban labor union allowed — has
instead written that "reorganization" will ensure redundant workers are
reassigned rather than fired.
He said the government wants more jobs in construction and agriculture.
Still, 35-year-old computer engineer Norberto fears for his job. He
thinks it's unfair to keep workers under communist domination and yet
call them unmotivated. "I didn't graduate from college to now work as a
day laborer or a peasant, he said.
If he loses his job and gets an offer to work abroad, he said, "my
question is 'Will the Cuban authorities put aside their paternalism and
let me leave?'"