Inter Press Service News Agency
HAVANA, Apr 4 (IPS)
Ofelia Hernández spends a large part of her workday away from her desk, visiting an office on housing problems in an attempt to find a solution for her own troubles, while Antonio López (not his real name) uses the tools from the government machine repair shop where he is employed to do his own moonlighting jobs on the weekends.
Its business as usual in Cuba, but that may now change with the imminent implementation of new work discipline rules, which have sparked debate on the limits between what is right and wrong, in a country where ever-present material shortages frequently push people to follow unorthodox or even illegal strategies to meet their basic needs.
“There are five of us in my family, and only my wife and I work,” López, an engineer in a machine repair shop, told IPS. “With our two salaries, we can barely afford to put food on our table or dress decently, so I have no choice but to do things on the side,” in other words, illegally.
An economist who preferred to remain anonymous told IPS that although the current average salary of 385 pesos is double the 1989 average of188 pesos—just before the severe crisis of the 1990s hit Cuba—“the average salary in 2006 had the same buying power as 45 pesos had in 1989.”
Although health care and education are free, and utility rates are extremely low, a survey conducted in Havana at the start of the decade found that an average family of four would require seven times the average salary to covert their basic needs.
A number of products are available only in hard currency, to which government sources estimate that 60 percent of the population has access, mainly through remittances from relatives living overseas, but also through work in tourism-related or other activities.
“If you have to move your TV set and you don’t have any way to do it, you take the company car,” Esteban Betancourt, a mechanic, told IPS. “If you need to buy cooking gas, you have to do it during your workday hours, because they close early.”
The new disciplinary measures were to go into effect in January, but were put off till this month in order to implement them “gradually, with consensus support and political sense, and in better conditions,” reported the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC), the only legal trade union in this socialist Caribbean island nation.
According to resolution 188 of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, the regulations “have the objective of improving order in the labour market, strengthening the education of workers, and confronting the lack of discipline and illegalities in the performance of people’s jobs.”
The new rules call for punctuality, and for workers to stay on the job throughout their scheduled shifts unless authorised to leave. They must also report to administration the reasons for absenteeism or tardiness.
In addition, workers are prohibited from accepting personal payments on the job outside of their wages, using vehicles or other equipment of their government employer for personal ends, and engaging in personal income-earning activities within the workplace.
“Serious breaches of discipline” listed are unexcused, unjustified or repeated absenteeism or tardiness, abandonment of the workplace during the worker’s shift, low productivity, or technological security breaches such as the downloading of files containing pornography, banned video games or fake documents.
Any of these infractions could lead to a pay cut or even dismissal.
In the words of Labour Minister Alfredo Morales, “objective and subjective limitations” have arisen over the last decade and a half, leading “to a serious deterioration of work discipline throughout the country.”
In this country of 11.2 million, 4.5 million people are employed in different sectors of the economy according to the last edition of Cuba’s statistical yearbook, which is published by the National Statistics Office.
The yearbook indicates that of these 4.5 million, 910,700 worked in cooperatives or were self- or privately-employed. The vast majority, meanwhile, more than two million men and one million women, worked in government enterprises or institutions, which is where the new regulations will be applied.
In inspections carried out from September 2005 to June 2006 by the Ministry of Labour to verify compliance with the labour regulations in effect at the time, irregularities were detected in over half of the work sites visited.
We have a pending challenge: how to get people to work conscientiously and efficiently,” Morales told the Cuban state press a year ago.
In the minister’s view, the discipline imposed under socialism must differ from discipline under a capitalist system, which is based on “unemployment and poverty” and “the fight for survival.”
That lack of “conscientiousness” could even predate the crisis of the 1990s, to judge by statements made by President Fidel Castro during the 1980s, when the government set out on a so-called “process of rectification of errors and negative tendencies.”
At the time, Castro called for “an end to all forms of wastefulness, deviation of resources, misuse of funds.and under-use of the workday,” which he said should be “sacred.”
The crusade undertaken back then by Castro, who has been convalescing from intestinal surgery since July, seems to have been revived now, with the adoption of new disciplinary rules.
Morales said the new regulations have already been discussed in most government workplaces, but that their effective implementation could still take a while due to continued problems with unreliable and crowded transportation, the cost and availability of foodstuffs, and power outages in workplaces.
“Where are the guaguas (buses) to take all of the workers to their jobs? How early will they have to get up in order to arrive on time?” wondered Betancourt. From his home on the outskirts of the capital, it can take up to two hours to reach his job in downtown Havana, if he uses public transport.
“Discipline is necessary if the revolution is going to move forward and if production plans are to be fulfilled,” said Betancourt. But, he added, “people are not going to change overnight the way they have always done things.”
“We have to wait and see what happens,” said Betancourt, whose 60 years have made him prudent when it comes to the future, which has frequently taken unpredictable turns.