Sunday, April 24, 2016

Letter from Managua: The working life

Our house has a room for a servant.
Well, not a room really. More like a cell. Nine feet long, less than six feet wide. There’s a single bed and sink, toilet and shower. A small window high up on one wall, three hooks to hang clothes.
We don’t have a ‘chica,’ the term generally used for the woman - usually young - who cleans the house, cooks meals and looks after the children.
Better a bad job than no job
In Honduras, Rosa came once a week to clean. Often, she brought her children. On cleaning days, I tidied the house before they got there and then went to buy soft drinks for her and any children who showed up. (I’m not using her real name.)
We didn’t need anyone to clean our small house. But Rosa was a single mom. Her husband, her charming nine-year-old daughter told me soon after we met, drank too many beers, dove into the river near their tiny house, hit his head on a rock and died. We visited their house just before we left - two rooms, dirt floor, concrete block walls, wood cooking fire, water from a tap just down the hill, broken treadle sewing machine out the back. Rosa had taken a sewing course and invited us to her graduation, where she wore a pale blue satin dress she had made. 
Here in Nicaragua, house cleaners are entitled to a minimum wage of $235 a month Canadian. That’s for a six-day work week, 12 hours a day. About 75 cents an hour. And employers can deduct up to 50 per cent for room and board.
We don’t need, or want a cleaner. I’d feel guilty about paying too little, foolish paying too much for a service I didn’t even want and hate the idea of sharing our house. But I know the job, poorly paid or not, would have been welcomed by someone.
A Cuso International placement plunks you into the middle of life in another country. You move beyond the statistics about GDP per capita ($42,000 in Canada and $4,500 here) and begin to understand what it means to live in a poor country. 
The Nicaraguan government sets minimum wages for different types of jobs. They increased eight or nine per cent this year, a jump that met the business community’s desire to avoid double-digit raises, but reflected the need to increase incomes, a six-per-cent inflation rate and the fact this is an election year.
The highest paid category - people who work in construction or financial institutions - has a minimum salary of $335 a month. Agricultural workers have a minimum wage of $150, government workers about $190. 
Some people are paid above the minimum wage, of course. But most are paid less. About 70 per cent of Nicaraguans work in the informal economy and minimum wages and other labour rules don’t apply. 
It’s a poor country. Second poorest in the hemisphere, according to the World Bank, ahead of perpetually lowest-ranked Haiti. And I have seen really poor people, living in houses of sticks and mud, sometimes worse.
But there are people with money here. We can walk to a mall and see a movie in a theatre nicer than any in Victoria. People line up for $4 lattes, and restaurants with prices in American dollars do well. Another mall has just completed a $36 million expansion with some flashy clothes stores. I’m going to buy a few shirts from Pull and Bear before we head to Canada. 
Partly, the issue is inequality. In Canada, the people in the top 20 per cent have an average income about six times as great as the people in the bottom 20 per cent. In Nicaragua, they have an average income 11 times higher. 
All of which makes development work interesting. A focus on getting people into the labour market isn’t necessarily productive, given low wages and limited opportunity. CATIE, my organization, is working on increasing incomes and food security for rural agricultural families. That makes sense.
More than one-third of Nicaraguans have a different solution in mind. A survey last month found 36 per cent of Nicaraguans were interested in emigrating. (Down from 52 per cent a year ago.) But they don’t want to stay away - more than 60 per cent of those interested in emigrating saw it as a way to make enough money to come home and start a business (38 per cent), pay debts or buy a house, or as an opportunity to study and improve their skills before returning to Nicaragua.
Which suggests Canada’s biggest development contribution could be opening the door a bit wider for people just looking for a chance to get ahead.