Tuesday, January 29, 2008

La Despedida

Yesterday morning, Ahmed came into my office and announced, "Estou a bazar," slang for "I am outta here."

I asked where he was going, thinking perhaps he was making a run to Shoprite for some lunch curries, or maybe to Maputo to run some errands for the day. From the way he looked at me, however, I knew it was more serious.

"What do you mean?" I asked him.

"Estou a bazar," he said again. "I won't be seeing you anymore at work."

My heart froze. What did he mean he was leaving work? Hadn't I just reassured the boys the other day that their jobs were safe, that despite these times of transition, they would still be around at the Banana Empire?

"Como assim?" I insisted on more details.

"Mr. Luigi put me to work on the night shift, starting today. I'm going to be supervising the banana operations from now on."

"What about Paulo and Raimundo?"

"They're staying on the day shift to sell the eggs in the warehouse."

Ahmed and I looked at each other over my desk, each of us suddenly without words as the news sunk in that our fabulous team of four was being broken up. He held out his hand, asking for mine, and gave me a reassuring squeeze.

"I'm really sad that you're leaving," I said, unexpected tears welling up in my eyes.

"Não chora," he said. Don't cry. "Life goes on."

And with that, Ahmed turned and left my office, leaving me staring at a blank computer screen.

Obviously I am very relieved that Ahmed still has a job, no matter what the hours are. I am glad that all the boys managed to retain their jobs. But selfishly, I am incredibly sad that Ahmed will no longer be working with us during the day.

After he left my office, we texted each other, trying to figure out when our schedules would cross and we could all get together to hang out and have a beer. There is only one possible time - Saturday afternoon - and I silently vowed to do whatever it takes to make sure we meet at least once a month outside work.

I went downstairs towards the end of the day and sat a bit with Paulo and Raimundo. We all agreed that work simply isn't the same without Ahmed, without his incessant shouting for the workers to load the trucks faster, MAIS RRRRRRRÁPIDO, without his jokes and gifts and stupid cell phone ring that blares out Brazilian funk every time someone calls. The three of us will certainly continue with our lunchtime rituals and camraderie in the workplace, but without Ahmed it's incomplete.

Yesterday evening, while cooking carne adovada, I spoke to Ahmed on the phone as he was on his way to work. I asked if he'd sorted out his working hours and salary. He said mais ou menos, that he still needed to get exact figures. I am always urging the boys to be assertive when it comes to things like unpaid overtime, working on holidays without extra pay, no benefits. If they don't say anything, the powers that be here at the Empire will gladly move forward without giving the workers fair compensation. Not that they are running an exploitative business here, it's just that it's all too easy to give someone the short end of the stick if it means you get a higher profit and have less of a headache in the process.

Last week, for a few days, all of my warehouse friends worked double shifts, from 7am to 11pm, without a break inbetween. I asked if they'd sorted out their extra pay for these insane work hours, and they said Mr. Luigi their supervisor was beating around the bush and avoiding a detailed discussion. The boys worked anyway. I later found out what they'd been paid for the additional shift, an amount negotiated after the work had already been performed: EIGHT DOLLARS. Eight fucking dollars!

This makes me upset on so many levels. Disappointed that management is willing to pay so little to 3 guys who are definitely a rarity in terms of work ethic. Sad that the boys didn't push for fair compensation for their hard work, be it because they themselves don't recognize the value of their work, or because they don't feel comfortable talking to the big boss. Upset that the quest for the biggest profit possible at the end of the year makes these types of decisions commonplace.

Yes, I understand that the principles of capitalism create this situation, and in general I think the private sector, profit-oriented model is the best (or even the "least-worst") way forward. But I also believe there is space in the capitalist model for fair wages, employee well-being, certain benefits. Little things that yes, at the end of the day take away from the bottom line, but end up buying a tremendous amount of goodwill, which in theory leads to productivity and loyalty.

I doubt the people who decide the wages that these boys - and all the other manual labor/seasonal/warehouse workers - receive have ever stopped to think what it means to live on minimum wage in Mozambique. I think there is a perception that life for "those kinds of people" is cheap, that they are quite content and able to make do with a monthly salary that is equivalent to what I often spend on just one meal in a restaurant.

Paulo and Raimundo were telling me yesterday that the price of chapas is set to increase here in Maputo. Currently, the price for taking one of the insane public minibus taxis is 5 to 7.5 meticais, the eqivalent of US$0,20 to $0,30. The new price will be 14.5 to 17 meticais, or US$0,60 to $0,70. This may seem extraordinarily cheap for public transport, when compared to US or even Brazilian bus fares, but bear in mind that these are largely unregulated, unsafe, uncomfortable vehicles.

Raimundo got a calculator and did a simple equation for us. In order to come to work, he must take 2 chapas each way. The end figure for 26 working days a month was 1,500 meticiais, or about US$63 spent on transport. Minimum wage in Mozambique is around 1,600 meticiais. You do the math...

In other news, yesterday was Hugh Marlboro's birthday, but as he was away from the office all day, we are celebrating today. The financial manager and I have organized a small party. I sent one of the warehouse loaders to Shoprite to buy a cake and some cokes. The only cake available in the supermarket's bakery was one that is fit for a little girl's princess-themed 11th birthday. It is light pink, covered with hearts and flowers and silver sprinkles. I can't wait to see Hugh Marlboro's reaction!


Southern Goddess said...

It is so shocking to see such injustice, especially aginst those that truly are hard working and loyal. I recently left my position as a director of cardiology at a local children's hospital after almost 10 years. I used to get so frustrated when the front office staff would have to walk to work because they couldn't afford gas, not eat lunch themselves so they could pay their electric bills, etc. Here, in the US, and upper management truly did not care.

Judy in KY said...

I appreciate your writing. It opens our eyes to many things that we wouldn't otherwise know about the world. I agree 100% with your statement that the capitalist model should have space for fair wages and employee well-being. That's the smartest thing I have heard in a long time. I wish those who have the power to change it believed this. I think they could make it happen if they were a bit less greedy.

Ali la Loca said...

~Southern Goddess - I used to work at an NGO in Austin, and even there, an organization dedicated to providing assistance to some of the most marginalized communities around, there were the same problems in wage disparaties. I think the tendency to have this chasm in companies is quite commonplace. When we are outsiders, it is easy to lobby for fair wages and equal treatment; when these changes mean we take a paycut ourselves, many times the story changes. At the end of the day, we as humans are rational beings, and this puts a sharp stop to much of our idealism...

~Judy in KY - It makes me very happy to be able to provide an alternate window to the world, in my own little way.
The problem with the "ideal" capitalist model is that it takes consumers to support it. Many such initiatives exist now, such as the FairTrade model, or "green" companies such as Whole Foods. However, at the end of the day, the sustainability of these models will depend on the extent to which we as end consumers are willing to pay $2 extra for a bag of apples, or $25 extra for a woven basket, to provide for the higher wages and employee benefits at the production level.
Again, it boils down to the unfortunate fact that we are rational beings. Cheaper, in most instances, is considered better. On the consumer end, it is easy to forget what exactly goes into that cheap price. Difficult is to not only remember that, but to then act on it making choices that affect our own, often limited budgets.