On the trail of Indian labourers in Cuba

The largest ever group of foreign workers is earning more than their Cuban counterparts. Is this fuelling resentment?

The largest group of foreign workers to be hired in Cuba are Indian [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]
The largest group of foreign workers to be hired in Cuba are Indian [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]

Havana, Cuba – Sparks fly and drills roar, but the restoration of the Manzana de Gomez, an ornate and imposing building to the east of Central Park in Old Havana, is well behind schedule.

This luxury hotel, restored by the Cuban state in partnership with French construction group, Bouygues, was supposed to open in October, but chunks of the outer walls are missing.

Peering through the dust, the scene looks no different from any number of other hotels being built in Havana.

But take a closer look and some of the labourers are different. They work more hurriedly and speak different languages. Some wear turbans. That is because 150 of the men building the Manzana de Gomez are Indian.

For the first time, the Communist Party has permitted a multinational to directly hire foreign labour on a large scale.

Until now, overseas firms operating in Cuba have had to hire Cuban workers through state labour agencies. Companies pay Cuba in dollars, and Cuba pays workers in pesos, worth 25 times less. Severing the connection between employer and employee makes it impossible to institute any performance pay and yields low levels of productivity. The status quo in Cuban workplaces can be neatly summed up by the old Soviet joke: “We pretend to work; they pretend to pay us.”

In March 2014, the Cuban government removed a major barrier to hiring foreign workers when it passed a new foreign investment law allowing different regulations concerning non-Cuban workers under “exceptional circumstances”. 

In October 2015, Martin Bouygues, the chief executive of Bouygues and godfather of Nicolas Sarkozy’s youngest son, flew to Havana for a special meeting with Raul Castro. This March, the new workers arrived.

The seismic shift has gone unreported by the island’s state media but word has got out about it in Havana. Thanks to Christopher Columbus’s hapless sense of direction, Cubans call the native peoples of the Americas “Indians”. Cubans refer to the people of India by another and not altogether accurate label, “Hindus”.

While the average Cuban earns $30 a month, Reuters has reported that the Indian workers are being paid more than $1,500. The island is a hardy redoubt of socialism, but as the spectre of capitalism haunts Cuba, is wage discrimination fuelling resentment among Cubans?

Cuban labourers working on the restoration of the Manzana de Gomez earn far less than their Indian counterparts [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]

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‘Follow that bus!’

“Brother peoples will always be able to count on solidarity and support from Cuba. Raul Castro, 7th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba,” reads a billboard as I make my way to Old Havana to meet the new workers.

Bused in from camps 25km outside the city, they arrive on site at 7am each day, work 12-hour shifts, and are then delivered back to camp.

Their walk from the building site to the coach at the end of the day is just 50 metres. Making contact is tricky.  

Narra Valdes, a plumber from Villa Clara province, is sitting in the shade of the metal fence surrounding the building site and eating a sandwich. He has just clocked off.


I ask him why the Indians are paid so much more than Cubans.

“That’s what we’ve been asking ourselves,” he says. “Cubans are too conformist. We always take what we’re given.”

Nearby, a taxi driver idles on his 1970s Lada. To pass the time, he claps his hands, barking “taxi, good price” at anyone who might be a tourist – including me. I tell him I’m waiting for the deep-pocketed Indians to finish work.

“$1,500 a month! Do you know how much that is? Pay me that and you can take the car,” he jokes, slapping the keys into my hand. 

The gate opens and the Indian workers stream through. I intercept a group as they board the coach. They’re in high spirits.

“You’re welcome to see the camp,” says Pranav*, a plumber from Odisha. “Jump on the coach.”

Doing so feels too brazen. Besides, the company chaperone won’t let me on, citing problems with the press. I take Pranav’s number before the chaperone intervenes. 

“Follow that bus!” I shout to the cabbie, jumping into the Lada. The adrenaline kicks in and I feel as if I’m in a movie. We follow the coach out of Old Havana and along the city’s iconic seaside boulevard, the Malecon, where groups of fishermen sit frittering away time, waiting for something to bite. I can see the labourers through the rear window of the bus, which is tinted and sports a Che Guevara stencil.

We head under Havana Bay, through the tunnel connecting the main city to the eastern suburbs. Re-emerging into daylight my driver gets pulled over by the police who ask to check his papers. El Che and his subcontinental comrades disappear into the distance.

“Brother peoples will always be able to count on solidarity and support from Cuba. Raul Castro, 7th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba,” reads a billboard en route to Old Havana [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]
The bus carrying Indian labourers heads back to camp after a day’s work [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]

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Ali Baba and the 40 thieves

Back in Old Havana I meet up with Arami Yosik, a labourer from Guantanamo who earns $60 a month – the same sum as the country’s celebrated doctors – for working on the Manzana de Gomez.

We have a drink at a terrace bar on Calle Obispo, one of Old Havana’s main tourist thoroughfares.

“Communication is difficult but there is friendship between the Cubans and the Indians,” he tells me, the incessant blur of backpackers and guided tour groups streaming before us.

“The Hindus call us Ali Baba and the 40 thieves,” he chuckles, and places his beer on the table next to some overalls and an unopened carton of guava juice given to him by his employers each lunchtime.

The Hindus call us Ali Baba and the 40 thieves

Arami Yosik, Cuban labourer working on the Manzana de Gomez restoration project

“One guy was jailed early on for ‘inventing’ drills. But there are so many cameras there now that you can’t invent.”

Cubans use euphemistic verbs to describe petty thievery: “inventing”, “resolving” or “struggling”. The last of these carries a delicious irony. For the past 50 years the revolution has called on the population to unite in collective struggle against adversity. They have taken the message on board and adapted it to their reality.

Addressing this Cuban particularity, I tease my housemate that I’m exposing how her compatriots spend their most productive hours. She reacts with indignation: “Do you think we are stealing or taking what we deserve?” She earns $1.50 a day as a university lecturer. It’s hard to disagree.

But as more foreign firms partner up with the state to develop infrastructure projects, Cuba’s tacit social contract is breaking down. Multinationals demand results and import foreign standards. They have the technology, vigilance and rigour to stamp out “inventing”.

Yosik points out a former workmate who is walking among the throng of tourists. “He used to be at the Manzana de Gomez. Now he’s installing a kitchen for some nouveau riches just off the Malecon.”

Arami Yosik, a labourer from Guantanamo, earns $60 a month – the same sum as the country’s celebrated doctors – for working on the Manzana de Gomez [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]

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Amid rising inequality, openness towards foreign workers

Inequality in Cuba, kept low for decades, is now widening quickly. Official figures put the ratio between the highest and lowest earners at seven to one. But this only captures wage inequality in the state sector.

Raul Castro’s reforms, presented as an inexorable move towards free-market capitalism by much of the international press and an update of Cuba’s socialist economic model by the state, have opened up pockets of capitalism in the national economy.

This trend has invigorated some sectors but also poses certain problems which didn’t previously exist. Talented builders and plumbers, carpenters and masons can now earn three times as much working in the private sector than toiling for the state. Inevitably, they are peeling away from public employment.

The Indians, of course, are taking home much more than any Cuban builder.

Does this irritate Yosik?

“No,” he says. “They’re earning their money, we’re earning ours.”

It’s hardly fair for Cubans if they’re doing the same work, I suggest.

“But I can’t do anything about that, can I Eduardo?”

“How about going on strike?” I venture, knowing better.

“That’s a political question,” he says, and abruptly directs the conversation in a less charged direction.

Cuban warm-heartedness, as well as apathy and a sense of powerlessness over their capacity to shape political and economic outcomes, go some way to accounting for Yosik’s attitude. Nonetheless, the absence of resentment is striking.

It’s refreshing, I find, when one considers how politics in the United States and Europe have taken an anti-immigrant turn, partly generated by outsiders competing in the same labour market as natives.

Contemplate how toxic the reaction would be if countries, say the UK, not only allowed immigrants to take “British jobs”, but established them on a separate, considerably more lucrative, pay scale. Blood – or at least splenetic tabloid headlines – would spill. But not in Cuba.

We finish the last of our beer and walk up the street back towards the Manzana de Gomez. Yosik sells his carton of juice to a woman selling soft drinks at a kiosk. He pockets 60 cents. “The struggle” is not dead yet.

An Indian labourer on site at the Manzana de Gomez [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]

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Cuba’s tourism ambitions

“Cubans are different,” says Jose Luis Perello, from the University of Havana’s Faculty of Tourism.

“Cuba was the only country in the New World where virtually the whole indigenous population was wiped out. So Cuba’s population was formed of immigrants: Spanish immigrants, African immigrants, Chinese immigrants, Arab immigrants. How can Cubans be hostile to those from the outside when they themselves are immigrants?”

We’re sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Presidente, an art deco hotel built in the 1920s. The hotel manager comes out to greet Perello, an old friend. “The Hindus working on the Manzana de Gomez!” the manager says, rolling his eyes disapprovingly.

“I’m one of those in favour of them being here,” Perello replies, taking a drag on his filter-free cigarette.

“Aren’t we Cubans already working all over the world as teachers, doctors and sports trainers? So it’s all right for us but not for them? And you know what – they work faster.”

The manager disagrees. “We Cubans are great workers. We need to have faith,” he says.

A record 3.5 million tourists came to Cuba last year, and for 2016 the number of US visitors looks set to double, as direct flights and cruises are re-established after a 50-year hiatus.

Barak Obama’s surprise announcement on December 17, 2014, that US-Cuban relations would move towards normalisation triggered this deluge of curious foreigners.

“In one day, in one speech, everything changed. We’re going to renew the relationship? Jesus Christ!” says Perello, pounding the table. “For the last 50 years Cuba has operated on the basis of restrictions with the US. We never thought that a different situation would come about, but now we’re facing a surge in tourism the likes of which we never imagined.”

Cuba’s plans for growing its tourism sector are eye-wateringly ambitious. The government aims to take the total number of hotel rooms from 63,000 to over 170,000 by 2030, according to Ministry of Tourism figures. Hitting this target would restore Cuba as the queen of Caribbean tourism, a position it enjoyed before the revolution.

Perello is convinced that to unlock the future, the island must embrace international labour mobility.

“How are we going to build all this in such a short time frame if we don’t use foreign labour? And once these resorts are built there’s the question of who will run them. In many of the islands off the north coast, the working age population is smaller than what will be needed to run the hotels. And even if all the Cubans there work in tourism, who’ll be left to drive the buses and farm potatoes?”

Projects like the restoration of the Manzana de Gomez into a luxury hotel are part of the Cuba’s ambitious efforts to accommodate large numbers of tourists [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]
Jose Luis Perello, of the Faculty of Tourism at the University of Havana, believes that for Cuba to realise its tourism ambitions, it must embrace international labour mobility [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]

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Pranav, the Indian plumber

I finally meet up with Pranav in Central Park at 10am on a Sunday. We sit down on the cool marble slabs in the plaza. Baseball corner is right beside us, and it’s difficult to speak over the gregarious fanatics who have congregated to scream at each other about whose team will win this year’s championship.

“Cuba’s beautiful and the people are good,” he tells me. “But their work is slow and careless. They don’t pay attention to detail.”

The workers come from Odisha, Rajasthan, Bihar, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. It’s Pranav’s first time outside India but many of his colleagues have worked on hotels in Dubai, Qatar and Singapore, bringing with them experience on high-spec projects that Cuban workers simply don’t have. 

“Life is free and the gap between the little man and the rich man is much smaller than in India,” he observes. “I like that. But my problem here is that I have no time.”

Sunday is his only day off and like most of his workmates he gets up early to come into town to call his wife and children over the internet. Each one-hour card costs him $2 and with the rickety internet the calls keep cutting out. He has to make sure he is back at camp for lunch at 1pm to avoid spending money on food.

The rest of the week, he spends his time either on site or in the camp. Curfew is at 10pm. He doesn’t speak Spanish, isn’t familiar with Cuban culture or history, and is unlikely to become so, given the exacting controls over his space and time.

While Pranav is pleased to be earning more than in India and to have a year’s solid work, reports of giant pay-packets are exaggerated, according to him. He tells me the Indian labourers have been instructed not to speak to the media, because the reports of them earning more than $1,500 have caused difficulties. He says he should earn $450 per month, $350 of which will go to cover rent, bills and his children’s education, but he’s been in Cuba since July and as of September had so far only been paid one month’s wages.

Though paid many times more than his Cuban counterparts, his immigration status is dependent on a visa granted by a multinational and the host state. He is vulnerable and exploitable: a prisoner-king finding his way in post-modern Cuba.

I’d planned to photograph some of the places he visits in his free time, but apart from the internet cafe there aren’t any. Besides, he worries that his pay could be docked and his visa revoked if I reveal his true identity.

“Promise me you won’t use my real name,” he asks of me at the end of our meeting. “Think of my children.”

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On Sundays, the Indian labourers head into Havana from their camp to call their families in northern and eastern India [Ed Augustin/Al Jazeera]

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A new internationalism?

Is there a solution to keep up with Cuba’s tourist demand that isn’t absurd on some level? Cuba finds itself at such a peculiar juncture that the answer is probably no.

The island could stick with the system that has endured until now, paying Cuban workers in pesos, thereby ensuring the hotels get built long after the tourist boom has passed.

Alternatively, it could do what almost all Cubans want – if you want us to work properly, raise our wages. But with what money? Public finances are already squeezed and the extra expense could jeopardise universal healthcare, to take one example, the financing of which is already being scaled back. Raising wages only for those in the building sector would plunge the Cuban labour market further down the rabbit hole, guaranteeing even more stories of surgeons leaving their jobs to look for better paying, lower skilled work.

The other option is to fully embrace the international labour market, allowing foreign workers to be paid comparatively lavish salaries, while the rest of the population scrapes by. This is playing with fire: it treats Cubans as de facto second-class citizens in their own country. But in terms of growing the economy and bringing in hard currency as quickly as possible, the logic is impeccable.

My bet is that with Cuba’s main ally Venezuela on the ropes, and market discipline slowly entrenching itself on the island, this new internationalism of the capitalistic variety will become the rule rather than the exception. Cuba will be extending solidarity – and cash – to “brother peoples” well into the future.

*This is a pseudonym at the request of the interviewee

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Follow Ed Augustin on Twitter: @Ed_Augustin

Source : Al Jazeera


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