On the trail of Indian labourers in Cuba
The largest ever group of foreign workers is earning more than their
Cuban counterparts. Is this fuelling resentment?
byEd Augustin @Ed_Augustin
Ed Augustin is a filmmaker and journalist. He’s currently shooting a
feature film about Guantanamo Bay.
Havana, Cuba – Sparks fly and drills roar, but the restoration of the
Manzana de Gomez, an ornate and imposing building to the east of Central
Park in Old Havana, is well behind schedule.
This luxury hotel, restored by the Cuban state in partnership with
French construction group, Bouygues, was supposed to open in October,
but chunks of the outer walls are missing.
Peering through the dust, the scene looks no different from any number
of other hotels being built in Havana.
But take a closer look and some of the labourers are different. They
work more hurriedly and speak different languages. Some wear turbans.
That is because 150 of the men building the Manzana de Gomez are Indian.
For the first time, the Communist Party has permitted a multinational to
directly hire foreign labour on a large scale.
Until now, overseas firms operating in Cuba have had to hire Cuban
workers through state labour agencies. Companies pay Cuba in dollars,
and Cuba pays workers in pesos, worth 25 times less. Severing the
connection between employer and employee makes it impossible to
institute any performance pay and yields low levels of productivity. The
status quo in Cuban workplaces can be neatly summed up by the old Soviet
joke: “We pretend to work; they pretend to pay us.”
In March 2014, the Cuban government removed a major barrier to hiring
foreign workers when it passed a new foreign investment law allowing
different regulations concerning non-Cuban workers under “exceptional
In October 2015, Martin Bouygues, the chief executive of Bouygues and
godfather of Nicolas Sarkozy’s youngest son, flew to Havana for a
special meeting with Raul Castro. This March, the new workers arrived.
The seismic shift has gone unreported by the island’s state media but
word has got out about it in Havana. Thanks to Christopher Columbus’s
hapless sense of direction, Cubans call the native peoples of the
Americas “Indians”. Cubans refer to the people of India by another and
not altogether accurate label, “Hindus”.
While the average Cuban earns $30 a month, Reuters has reported that the
Indian workers are being paid more than $1,500. The island is a hardy
redoubt of socialism, but as the spectre of capitalism haunts Cuba, is
wage discrimination fuelling resentment among Cubans?
‘Follow that bus!’
“Brother peoples will always be able to count on solidarity and support
from Cuba. Raul Castro, 7th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba,”
reads a billboard as I make my way to Old Havana to meet the new workers.
Bused in from camps 25km outside the city, they arrive on site at 7am
each day, work 12-hour shifts, and are then delivered back to camp.
Their walk from the building site to the coach at the end of the day is
just 50 metres. Making contact is tricky.
Narra Valdes, a plumber from Villa Clara province, is sitting in the
shade of the metal fence surrounding the building site and eating a
sandwich. He has just clocked off.
I ask him why the Indians are paid so much more than Cubans.
“That’s what we’ve been asking ourselves,” he says. “Cubans are too
conformist. We always take what we’re given.”
Nearby, a taxi driver idles on his 1970s Lada. To pass the time, he
claps his hands, barking “taxi, good price” at anyone who might be a
tourist – including me. I tell him I’m waiting for the deep-pocketed
Indians to finish work.
“$1,500 a month! Do you know how much that is? Pay me that and you can
take the car,” he jokes, slapping the keys into my hand.
The gate opens and the Indian workers stream through. I intercept a
group as they board the coach. They’re in high spirits.
“You’re welcome to see the camp,” says Pranav*, a plumber
from Odisha. “Jump on the coach.”
Doing so feels too brazen. Besides, the company chaperone won’t let me
on, citing problems with the press. I take Pranav’s number before the
“Follow that bus!” I shout to the cabbie, jumping into the Lada. The
adrenaline kicks in and I feel as if I’m in a movie. We follow the coach
out of Old Havana and along the city’s iconic seaside boulevard, the
Malecon, where groups of fishermen sit frittering away time, waiting for
something to bite. I can see the labourers through the rear window of
the bus, which is tinted and sports a Che Guevara stencil.
We head under Havana Bay, through the tunnel connecting the main city to
the eastern suburbs. Re-emerging into daylight my driver gets pulled
over by the police who ask to check his papers. El Che and his
subcontinental comrades disappear into the distance.
Ali Baba and the 40 thieves
Back in Old Havana I meet up with Arami Yosik, a labourer from
Guantanamo who earns $60 a month – the same sum as the country’s
celebrated doctors – for working on the Manzana de Gomez.
We have a drink at a terrace bar on Calle Obispo, one of Old Havana’s
main tourist thoroughfares.
“Communication is difficult but there is friendship between the Cubans
and the Indians,” he tells me, the incessant blur of backpackers and
guided tour groups streaming before us.
“The Hindus call us Ali Baba and the 40 thieves,” he chuckles, and
places his beer on the table next to some overalls and an unopened
carton of guava juice given to him by his employers each lunchtime.
“One guy was jailed early on for ‘inventing’ drills. But there are so
many cameras there now that you can’t invent.”
Cubans use euphemistic verbs to describe petty thievery: “inventing”,
“resolving” or “struggling”. The last of these carries a delicious
irony. For the past 50 years the revolution has called on the population
to unite in collective struggle against adversity. They have taken the
message on board and adapted it to their reality.
Addressing this Cuban particularity, I tease my housemate that I’m
exposing how her compatriots spend their most productive hours. She
reacts with indignation: “Do you think we are stealing or taking what we
deserve?” She earns $1.50 a day as a university lecturer. It’s hard to
But as more foreign firms partner up with the state to develop
infrastructure projects, Cuba’s tacit social contract is breaking down.
Multinationals demand results and import foreign standards. They have
the technology, vigilance and rigour to stamp out “inventing”.
Yosik points out a former workmate who is walking among the throng of
tourists. “He used to be at the Manzana de Gomez. Now he’s installing a
kitchen for some nouveau riches just off the Malecon.”
Amid rising inequality, openness towards foreign workers
Inequality in Cuba, kept low for decades, is now widening quickly.
Official figures put the ratio between the highest and lowest earners at
seven to one. But this only captures wage inequality in the state sector.
Raul Castro’s reforms, presented as an inexorable move towards
free-market capitalism by much of the international press and an update
of Cuba’s socialist economic model by the state, have opened up pockets
of capitalism in the national economy.
This trend has invigorated some sectors but also poses certain problems
which didn’t previously exist. Talented builders and plumbers,
carpenters and masons can now earn three times as much working in the
private sector than toiling for the state. Inevitably, they are peeling
away from public employment.
The Indians, of course, are taking home much more than any Cuban builder.
Does this irritate Yosik?
“No,” he says. “They’re earning their money, we’re earning ours.”
It’s hardly fair for Cubans if they’re doing the same work, I suggest.
“But I can’t do anything about that, can I Eduardo?”
“How about going on strike?” I venture, knowing better.
“That’s a political question,” he says, and abruptly directs the
conversation in a less charged direction.
Cuban warm-heartedness, as well as apathy and a sense of powerlessness
over their capacity to shape political and economic outcomes, go some
way to accounting for Yosik’s attitude. Nonetheless, the absence of
resentment is striking.
It’s refreshing, I find, when one considers how politics in the United
States and Europe have taken an anti-immigrant turn, partly generated by
outsiders competing in the same labour market as natives.
Contemplate how toxic the reaction would be if countries, say the UK,
not only allowed immigrants to take “British jobs”, but established them
on a separate, considerably more lucrative, pay scale. Blood – or at
least splenetic tabloid headlines – would spill. But not in Cuba.
We finish the last of our beer and walk up the street back towards the
Manzana de Gomez. Yosik sells his carton of juice to a woman selling
soft drinks at a kiosk. He pockets 60 cents. “The struggle” is not dead yet.
Cuba’s tourism ambitions
“Cubans are different,” says Jose Luis Perello, from the University of
Havana’s Faculty of Tourism.
“Cuba was the only country in the New World where virtually the whole
indigenous population was wiped out. So Cuba’s population was formed of
immigrants: Spanish immigrants, African immigrants, Chinese immigrants,
Arab immigrants. How can Cubans be hostile to those from the outside
when they themselves are immigrants?”
We’re sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Presidente, an art deco hotel
built in the 1920s. The hotel manager comes out to greet Perello, an old
friend. “The Hindus working on the Manzana de Gomez!” the manager says,
rolling his eyes disapprovingly.
“I’m one of those in favour of them being here,” Perello replies, taking
a drag on his filter-free cigarette.
Cuba’s population was formed of immigrants: Spanish immigrants, African
immigrants, Chinese immigrants, Arab immigrants. How can Cubans be
hostile to those from the outside when they themselves are immigrants?”
Jose Luis Perello, Faculty of Tourism at the University of Havana
“Aren’t we Cubans already working all over the world as teachers,
doctors and sports trainers? So it’s all right for us but not for them?
And you know what – they work faster.”
The manager disagrees. “We Cubans are great workers. We need to have
faith,” he says.
A record 3.5 million tourists came to Cuba last year, and for 2016 the
number of US visitors looks set to double, as direct flights and cruises
are re-established after a 50-year hiatus.
Barak Obama’s surprise announcement on December 17, 2014, that US-Cuban
relations would move towards normalisation triggered this deluge of
“In one day, in one speech, everything changed. We’re going to renew the
relationship? Jesus Christ!” says Perello, pounding the table. “For the
last 50 years Cuba has operated on the basis of restrictions with the
US. We never thought that a different situation would come about, but
now we’re facing a surge in tourism the likes of which we never imagined.”
Cuba’s plans for growing its tourism sector are eye-wateringly
ambitious. The government aims to take the total number of hotel rooms
from 63,000 to over 170,000 by 2030, according to Ministry of Tourism
figures. Hitting this target would restore Cuba as the queen of
Caribbean tourism, a position it enjoyed before the revolution.
Perello is convinced that to unlock the future, the island must embrace
international labour mobility.
“How are we going to build all this in such a short time frame if we
don’t use foreign labour? And once these resorts are built there’s the
question of who will run them. In many of the islands off the north
coast, the working age population is smaller than what will be needed to
run the hotels. And even if all the Cubans there work in tourism, who’ll
be left to drive the buses and farm potatoes?”
Pranav, the Indian plumber
I finally meet up with Pranav in Central Park at 10am on a Sunday. We
sit down on the cool marble slabs in the plaza. Baseball corner is right
beside us, and it’s difficult to speak over the gregarious fanatics who
have congregated to scream at each other about whose team will win this
“Cuba’s beautiful and the people are good,” he tells me. “But their work
is slow and careless. They don’t pay attention to detail.”
The workers come from Odisha, Rajasthan, Bihar, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
It’s Pranav’s first time outside India but many of his colleagues have
worked on hotels in Dubai, Qatar and Singapore, bringing with them
experience on high-spec projects that Cuban workers simply don’t have.
“Life is free and the gap between the little man and the rich man is
much smaller than in India,” he observes. “I like that. But my problem
here is that I have no time.”
Sunday is his only day off and like most of his workmates he gets up
early to come into town to call his wife and children over the internet.
Each one-hour card costs him $2 and with the rickety internet the calls
keep cutting out. He has to make sure he is back at camp for lunch at
1pm to avoid spending money on food.
The rest of the week, he spends his time either on site or in the camp.
Curfew is at 10pm. He doesn’t speak Spanish, isn’t familiar with Cuban
culture or history, and is unlikely to become so, given the exacting
controls over his space and time.
While Pranav is pleased to be earning more than in India and to have a
year’s solid work, reports of giant pay-packets are exaggerated,
according to him. He tells me the Indian labourers have been instructed
not to speak to the media, because the reports of them earning more than
$1,500 have caused difficulties. He says he should earn $450 per month,
$350 of which will go to cover rent, bills and his children’s education,
but he’s been in Cuba since July and as of September had so far only
been paid one month’s wages.
Though paid many times more than his Cuban counterparts, his immigration
status is dependent on a visa granted by a multinational and the host
state. He is vulnerable and exploitable: a prisoner-king finding his way
in post-modern Cuba.
I’d planned to photograph some of the places he visits in his free time,
but apart from the internet cafe there aren’t any. Besides, he worries
that his pay could be docked and his visa revoked if I reveal his true
“Promise me you won’t use my real name,” he asks of me at the end of our
meeting. “Think of my children.”
A new internationalism?
Is there a solution to keep up with Cuba’s tourist demand that isn’t
absurd on some level? Cuba finds itself at such a peculiar juncture that
the answer is probably no.
The island could stick with the system that has endured until now,
paying Cuban workers in pesos, thereby ensuring the hotels get built
long after the tourist boom has passed.
Alternatively, it could do what almost all Cubans want – if you want us
to work properly, raise our wages. But with what money? Public finances
are already squeezed and the extra expense could jeopardise universal
healthcare, to take one example, the financing of which is already
being scaled back. Raising wages only for those in the building sector
would plunge the Cuban labour market further down the rabbit hole,
guaranteeing even more stories of surgeons leaving their jobs to look
for better paying, lower skilled work.
The other option is to fully embrace the international labour market,
allowing foreign workers to be paid comparatively lavish salaries, while
the rest of the population scrapes by. This is playing with fire: it
treats Cubans as de facto second-class citizens in their own country.
But in terms of growing the economy and bringing in hard currency as
quickly as possible, the logic is impeccable.
My bet is that with Cuba’s main ally Venezuela on the ropes, and market
discipline slowly entrenching itself on the island, this new
internationalism of the capitalistic variety will become the rule rather
than the exception. Cuba will be extending solidarity – and cash – to
“brother peoples” well into the future.
*This is a pseudonym at the request of the interviewee
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not
necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
This story is part of the My Cuba series. More stories from the series
can be read here:
Follow Ed Augustin on Twitter: @Ed_Augustin
Source: On the trail of Indian labourers in Cuba – News from Al Jazeera