Cuba controversy over local and Indian wages
By Will Grant
Cuba correspondent, BBC News
1 November 2016
Walk along the leafy boulevard of el Prado in Old Havana and you’ll find
it hard to escape the sounds of construction.
At least three major hotel building projects are under way along that
stretch of the Cuban capital, including the renovation of the Manzana de
Gomez, a former shopping mall being converted into a five-star hotel.
With tourist numbers hitting record levels this year, the need for new
hotels is self-evident.
However, in recent days the Hotel Manzana building project has generated
Not for its architectural style, which remains faithful to its early
20th Century European influences, nor for its budget or timing – it is
due to be completed by spring next year.
Rather for the disparity in wages between different employees on the site.
The French industrial company, Bouygues, which is building the luxury
hotel in partnership with the Cuban state, brought between 100 and 200
Indian labourers to Cuba to work on the project, Reuters reported
earlier this year.
Tight regulations on how much foreign companies can pay Cuban employees
mean that in essence the Indian labourers are being paid about 10 times
the amount – estimated at between $1,300-$1,700 (£1,000-£1,400) a month
– that Cubans are earning.
“It is normal practice for us to bring in our own teams to work on
construction sites around the world,” a French foreman for Bouygues
explained over coffee.
The foreman, who only gave his name as Franco, said he had travelled
extensively with the company, particularly in the Middle East, and had
almost always used teams of labourers who came into the country with the
But in Latin America employing such a foreign labour force is relatively
rare and in Cuba it’s almost unheard of.
Initially neither the presence of Indian employees or the wage
differential was considered especially controversial.
Rather it was the government’s explanation, which took several months to
emerge, that seems to have infuriated people.
In an interview published in the state-run newspaper, Juventud Rebelde,
Jose Martinez, deputy director of Cuba’s construction and real estate
company Almest, linked the higher wages to the Indians’ productivity.
“The Indian workers’ level of efficiency in construction work is three
or four times greater than the national average in Cuba,” he said.
“Their work always produces very high-quality results… they make the
most out of their working day, which results in greater productivity.”
Unsurprisingly, that was met with indignation by scores of hardworking
“If you paid us [the same] we’d build the Manzana de Gomez four times
over,” said Yanquiel Jardines as he ate his lunch on a building site in
the Vedado district of the city.
I asked the 25-year-old state employee and his older colleagues about
the Juventud Rebelde article as they smoked and drank sodas on their
By and large, they say, they don’t resent the fact that the Indian
workers earn higher wages. Instead, they value the stability of their
state jobs over the better-paid but more “sporadic” work in the private
“This is working towards my pension and I know I’m working again
tomorrow,” says Rolando, who’s spent more than 20 years on building sites.
“But those guys in the ‘brigades’ [on private sector projects] don’t
know what will happen when the job they’re working on ends. They might
not work again for months.”
What did anger them, however, was the suggestion that they aren’t as
efficient as their Indian counterparts – or any other nationality, for
For many Cubans, the issue of employment with foreign companies gets to
the heart of their questions about how the rapprochement with the United
States – and the subsequent boom in tourism – will benefit them.
Will foreign investors be permitted to hire Cuban workers directly
instead of through the state employment agency? And will they receive
wages at an “international” market rate?
The city’s historian, Eusebio Leal, is the man behind the renovation of
much of Old Havana.
In a recent interview with the BBC he spoke about the Hotel Manzana pay
issue saying: “130 or 140 labourers that this company [Bouygues] brings
in are not going to determine the reality of the internal labour market
Meanwhile, Almest says it is undertaking a study to create a new system
of payments, one more closely linked to productivity.
That may not placate some state construction workers though; already
they are earning less than their co-workers, and now their pride is
Source: Cuba controversy over local and Indian wages – BBC News –