Thursday, January 17, 2013
Somebody told me a few months after we moved here that Honduran women often long to have their own corner store.
I thought it a strange thing to say at the time. But it makes more sense now that I see how impermanent the work culture is here. I’m betting that it’s not racks of little chip bags or a cooler full of giant bottles of Coke that gets a Honduran woman hankering to open her own pulperia. It’s economic stability.
The days of 35 years and a gold watch have been over for a while now in virtually every country, what with free trade having unleashed a new kind of work culture that just moves around the globe to whatever country has the hungriest workers willing to work for the cheapest wages. No job is a sure thing anymore, wherever you live.
But the sheer uncertainty of any job in Honduras - well, that would set me to dreaming of economic stability as well were I a Honduran woman trying to keep my bills paid and my kids fed, clothed and educated over the long term. Even the “good” jobs here are often year-to-year at best, and there’s a lot of work that’s literally one day at a time.
An example: The situation for my Honduran co-workers at the non-profit where I volunteer. Their jobs are the envy of many, seeing as they earn the equivalent of $500-700 a month and enjoy comfortable working conditions. But they’re still working year to year under contracts that never go past Dec. 31.
I didn’t know that until last month, when I went to the annual spiritual retreat for the organization and watched everybody getting handed the standard form letter that all employees get in December. It’s more or less a “Dear John” letter: Thanks for your service, your contract’s done. Apparently it’s common practice among many Honduran non-profits, many of which opt to meet the letter of the law by giving people an additional month's pay every year without having to keep them on longer-term contracts.
The lucky ones end up getting their contracts renewed. But there are no guarantees. A person could work for the same organization for 10 years and still be gone just like that in Year 11.
Nor are you treated gently when the end comes. One woman who works out of the same office as me got a terse email at 5 p.m. on the final day before the Christmas holiday informing her that she was done after three years on the job. Her project continues for another year or two, but she’s no longer the one leading it.
And those are the good jobs. Two million Hondurans count on seasonal income from the coffee harvest, but that work is brief, frequently involves travelling long distances, and pits you against the nimble fingers of legions of children whose parents send them into the coffee fields every year in hopes of boosting the paltry family income.
Move to the city and you might land a job in one of the maquilas – the international factories that have benefited the most from free trade. But those employers get a special exemption so they don't have to pay the minimum wage (which is damn minimal in Honduras, as little as $1 an hour). Maybe you can find a service job, but prepare for long hours, low pay, and more of that chronic insecurity. The young man who manages the pool where I like to swim works at least nine hours a day, seven days a week. Christmas came and went for him without so much as an afternoon off.
Back in Canada, we tend to think of “good” jobs as being the due of those who are focused, flexible and attentive to their studies. Here, you can be all those things and still get nowhere.
One young friend who works in administration has spent every weekend for the last four years going to college in a town that’s a slow two-hour bus ride away. She figures she needs at least two more years of study before she has enough qualifications to land a better job. And it could very likely be a year-to-year job even then.
One of these days, she might just wake up to find herself ready to give it all up and open a pulperia. Who’d blame her?