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CUBA: Will Legalising Multiple Jobs Bring Real Change for Women?

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Aug 30 2009 (IPS) - With a good job as a professional in Cuba’s public sector, Mariela Sánchez takes advantage of the flexible hours to take on another, part-time job and collaborate with a specialised publication.

University student during the week, craft goods vendor on the weekend. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

University student during the week, craft goods vendor on the weekend. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Reality hit her hard in 1991, when at the same time her daughter was born Cuba slid into an economic crisis that would radically change her life and those of the more than 11 million people of this Caribbean island nation. The impact, which in some sectors seems irreversible, can still be felt in her family and throughout society as a whole.

“Although I got to keep my job – which I like, and which makes me happy – I had to start cleaning the home of a family of foreigners. It was the only way I could secure an income in dollars that would allow me to live a little bit better and, most of all, feed my little girl properly,” Mariela Sánchez, 45, told IPS.

Then the roles in the family were reversed and her husband was hired for a well-paid position at a foreign-owned company. She continued in her job, complementing it with a little work here and there, until, like so many other women in Cuba, she was left on her own to support the household she shares with her maternal grandparents.

Although for the past 20 years or so Sánchez has been involved in some form or another of informal or alternative employment, she’s not very convinced about the new opportunities offered by the government through the new Decree-Law 268, passed in late June, which amends labour regulations.

The measure legalised two activities that until now had been prohibited: multiple employment in the state sector and paid part-time positions for university students, with the aim of “stimulating production, enabling income growth” and addressing issues raised by the ageing of the population.

Senior government officials, health sector personnel, teachers, researchers and auditors have for the time being been excluded from the reform and from multiple employment.

But the change does not address a key contradiction. The real value of wages in Cuban pesos is still very low, despite raises decreed over the last few years. Except for rare exceptions, a second government job will not bring in the income in foreign currency that families need today to live decently.

Cubans benefit from various subsidies and free services, but their mean salary is only 415 pesos – barely 17 dollars on the black market.

“Multiple employment could be an alternative, provided it’s not seen as a magic wand that will solve or help overcome these problems,” an economist commented to IPS, on condition of anonymity.

Living in crisis

Studies conducted in the late 1990s predicted that it would take Cuba many years to return to the income levels it had prior to the economic crisis brought on by the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the socialist bloc, the island’s leading trade and aid partners.

But the crisis not only caused an abrupt decline in the economy. It also brought significant changes to society in this socialist country: it produced an inversion of the social pyramid, generated or widened the differences between groups and classes, stratified income distribution and aggravated the vulnerability of socially disadvantaged segments of the population.

Twenty years into the crisis, Mariela Sánchez says her family “has not been able to overcome it.”

While around 80 percent of the economically-active population is employed in the government sector and the country’s unemployment rate stands at barely 1.6 percent, a study carried out early this decade by the Centre for Psychological and Sociological Research found that a significant number of people sought options outside government employment.

Strategies for boosting income include part-time jobs, giving up professional options in favour of better-paid jobs, entering the labour market at an earlier age, self-employment, and obtaining jobs where earnings can be supplemented with tips, such as in tourism.

However, alternatives are not the same for men and women. According to social psychologist Mareelén Díaz, while men “employ strategies that require them to leave the home,” women usually “stay indoors.”

“Young women in Havana venture outside the domestic sphere to sell products, some made by them or other women, and others of a dubious origin. Older women choose domestic work more often than younger women and look for cleaning jobs in government offices and state enterprises,” the researcher said.

Data from the National Statistics Office indicate that around 26 percent of self-employed workers are women. The women who choose this option are concentrated in the lowest-paid activities: coffee shop attendants, knitters, seamstresses, hair dressers or cooks.

But there are many forms of informal work, and women are the majority in what can be called the professional category, tutoring children and teenagers in a vast range of subjects, including languages and classes to help them with their schoolwork.

A comparative study on the situation of women and work in Cuba and Spain found that on the island, in contrast to other countries of Latin America, “self-employment and informal work are more lucrative options than government jobs.

“Yet, women participate less in the former, thus contributing to a widening of the wage gap between men and women,” the study says.

According to analysts, Cuban women are still occupying the lowest-paid positions, even though labour laws guarantee equal work for both genders and women represent 66 percent of the country’s technical and professional labour force.

In this context, economists consulted by IPS considered that the authorisation of multiple employment could be a viable alternative for professional women to earn higher incomes, without having to resort to risky and often illegal options.

“This is just one more opportunity that will be available. We’ll have to wait and see how women and men will be incorporated over time into this new situation,” psychologist Norma Vasallo, head of the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Havana, told IPS.

Young perspectives

Sánchez’s daughter, Ana, opted for a technical school instead of the university, which had been her mother’s choice, and joined the labour market at an earlier age working this summer as a vendor in a crafts market on weekends. “She’s not a hired worker, she’s helping out some friends, a family who pays her some 15 dollars for two days work,” her mother explained.

University was what most Cubans in the generation that is now about 40 aspired to. But things have changed and today’s twenty-year-olds are setting their sights elsewhere. The economic crisis of the 1990s encouraged them to look for new options, leading some to even drop out of school at 15 or 16.

Simultaneously, higher education is becoming increasingly feminised. More women than men are enrolling, and make up as many as 63 percent of those who graduate.

The Third National Survey of Young Persons, jointly conducted in 2004 by the governmental Centre for Studies on Youth (CEJ) and the National Statistics Bureau, indicated that 19.3 percent of respondents aged 15 to 29 did not have a “formal link” with studies or work in state bodies.

Of that total, 69.3 percent were women. “A historical analysis of unemployment in Cuba…reveals a high number of unemployed women, young people and people living in the eastern part of the country,” CEJ expert María Josefa Luis said.

This lack of involvement by young people occurs in a scenario of employment offers that usually don’t match youth expectations. Cuba’s labour sector has been experiencing a paradox for decades: the coexistence of unemployment with an unsatisfied labour demand from production sectors, such as construction and agriculture.

Alejandra Menéndez, 21, told IPS that she is fully aware that she needs to reconcile her income needs with her university studies, but she also said she’s “not willing to study and work long hours for a salary in Cuban pesos.”

But Raquel Sierra, a reporter with the weekly publication Tribuna de La Habana, said the labour reform will have immediate beneficiaries in the media.

Journalism students work in the media as soon as they begin their studies, “and they work hard, but until now there had been no way to pay them. With the authorisation for multiple employment, that’s going to change,” she explained to IPS.

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