Thursday, May 22, 2008

Good Help Is Hard To Find

                         Katya the jacaré (caiman).  Amazon River, Brasil, 2007

There has been a scarcity of workers in the area lately, since construction has soaked them up.  I have no idea what unemployment figures were and are (and doubt that the government does, either--not real figures) but there's no question that the last 2 years has seen a decrease in the people who were available for hiring as handymen, gardeners, light construction, the like.  The fact is, many workers can make far more in construction or construction-related jobs such as driving trucks, than they can as unskilled labor.  More power to them.

But there are other problems that have existed for some time--certainly as long as we've been here (4 years).  There are a number of facets. 

1) Cultural attitudes towards work.  Originally, we were more than happy to hire young men, especially teens, because we knew the high unemployment rate among those age groups.  But we've learned the hard way, believe me, not to hire young men either in their teens or early twenties.  Only possible exception: if they're married and have a family.

Otherwise, the experience around here is that they'll work for you for anywhere from 3-6 weeks--and then suddenly never show up again.  Doesn't matter that you pay them more than the going rate or treat them much better than most Panamanians treat their workers.  

I refer a lot to the book I reviewed in one of my earliest posts: Path to Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush.  It's fascinating history.  In the very earliest parts of the book, when there was no other transportation across the isthmus except by mule and boat, travelers desperate to get to the Pacific from the Atlantic on their way to the gold fields of California, complained about the fact that Panamanians worked until they had whatever money was good enough for them, and then disappeared--along with their boats, mules and knowledge of the country.  This behavior isn't limited to Panamanians by any means but it's not universal across Latin America.

2) You get what you pay for.  One of the topics I hear about most frequently from those who want to or are about to move here is the joy over cheap labor.  It's quite a different story from those of us who have been here for a while but the newbies or wannabees are quite enthusiastic.


I've said it before in another post, but what you find here is a population of unskilled labor that is exactly that--unfamiliar with the powered tools such as lawn mowers and weed eaters that we take for granted and assume even the most unskilled can use.  Wrong.  10 years ago, give or take a couple of years, the overwhelming majority of the workers here had never seen never mind operated one.  That has come with the latest American Invasion.  Now, everyone has seen one--but very, very few know how to operate them.

The first worker we hired as a gardener cost us two burned-out carburetors for our weed eater and a burned-out power drill.  That's the damage I'm sure of.  Others that we hired, who assured us that they knew how to operate a weed eater wound up costing us a damaged starter, damaged heads, and damaged shafts, as well as motors that after a while just simply gave up.  I'm on our 3rd weed eater now, and no one--I mean NO ONE--touches my obscenely expensive but tough Stihl F55.  I have refused to lend equipment out to other ex-pats, knowing perfectly well that they are not going to the do the work but have their Panamanian workers use the tools.  When I first ran across that attitude with a neighbor, very early on, I was a little indignant; I now have exactly the same one.

The ignorance coupled with lack of money means that Panamanians themselves don't care for their equipment.  We use a very good welder for all our ironwork.  He installed our puertas and verjas for the house.  For this he needed a power drill because his, he explained, wasn't working.  He wanted to know if he could use mine, until he could get his repaired.  Far along the pathway to becoming a Panamanian, I lied and said I didn't have one.  Since I'm a woman, he accepted that.  Saves face all around.  He borrowed one from a Panamanian friend and I noted with interest that he was still using that same drill (at much too low a speed for concrete) months later when he came to install a gate.

The correct oil to use in the weed eaters is NOT the common 2-cycle one found everywhere for both water-cooled and air-cooled engines, but just for air-cooled engines.  It's not easy to find, and it's far more expensive.  Guess which one most Panamanians use.  The only exception I've seen is my friend Ricardo Espinosa who knows how to use and care for his tools and does so.

God bless Darío and keep him healthy and safe for many years to come, but he, too, has no clue about power tools.  I know perfectly well that he contributed to the demise of our last weed eater.  I won't allow him within 10 meters of my Stihl, with the excuse that I like doing that work (another flat-out lie) because it gives me needed exercise (true).  He has, however, taken over the operation of the lawn mower, which he treats lovingly and carefully, taking pride in his work.  I've believed for some time that Darío unconsciously views the lawn mower as "his".  Good.   Mary keeps an eye on oil levels and changes the oil while I sharpen the blade--all when Darío isn't here.  We are incredibly fond of Darío, who has been a godsend after literally years of being unable to find decent help, and take very good care of him in many different ways, including preserving his pride.  We depend on Darío but I know his limits and do not ask him to go beyond them.  

So if I look at just what its cost me to replace tools and to have them inadequately repaired after unnecessary damage--I'd have to add about $1000, minimum, to the labor costs.  We only recently started having Darío come in twice a week; before that it was only once a week for everyone else and for the first year he was here.  So the damage and repair/replacement costs have almost equaled our labor costs.

3) Most workers will lie to your face about all sorts of things, including their competence.  We're so used to references, being able to check on people and to assuming that people will represent themselves more or less correctly.  Plus I think that most Americans coming here are blinded by that seemingly cheap dollar value on labor here.  It's also hard to nearly impossible to get formal references.  Most Americans wouldn't do so anyway, because it would mean, heaven preserve them, speaking Spanish.  Chances are pretty good that the references would lie, too, so why bother.

The best possible advice I can give you is treat everyone as if they are lying to you and depend on word of mouth.  Our original gardener made all sorts of claims which in our naiveté at the time were true because his brother worked next door, was pretty good and assured me that his brother would work out well.  I should have noted the ambiguity.

We fired that young man for many reasons, not the least of which was that he was nearly totally incompetent as a gardener.  Thanks to his ignorance and neglect, some precious fruit trees died.  He had no idea if plants needed sun or shade, and didn't know how to plant trees.  The trees that I planted did well from the beginning, and are now fruiting.  The trees that he planted either died or are just now starting to take off.

He lied because he was desperate for work and his brother lied for him.  Never, ever underestimate the strength of family here.  Americans, who love to jabber a lot about "family values", have no clue whatsoever because culturally we really place very little value on family values.  It's too often just a code phrase for homophobia, anyway.

We hire no one anymore--don't even consider consider them--unless they have been referred to us by people we know and trust: long-time ex-pats and Panamanian friends who really understand what we need.  Darío recommended someone to fix our lawn mower because he naively assumed that this man, who can indeed work on car and tractor engines, could therefore work on small motors.  Wrong.  Another lesson learned but a cheap one.

Another nice young man whom we had for a few times assured me that he could run a weed eater.  By this time, I was a sceptic, so under the excuse of well, this one is a little different, I went through the steps of staring it.  Yes, yes, I know.  OK.  I watched from the window as he worked and worked the pull cord--and couldn't get it started.  So I went out (by that time the motor was flooded and he didn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of getting it started--of course, he didn't realize that) and asked him if there was some problem.  He complained about the weed eater, but when I went through the steps with him, he had left out a small detail like turning the switch from "off" to "on".  In reality, after I started it for him and watched him work, it was very clear from his clumsiness that he had never touched a weed eater before.  Heaven knows how much life he took off  that particular starter and what other damage he did to the motor.  They do not understand about loads on  a motor and thus are prone to burn out motors because they don't run them fast enough.  And the reason they don't run them faster is because that uses up more, precious, expensive gasoline.  Then they abandon their weed eaters and either revert to machete (the honest ones) or steal another if they can.  So the cycle goes on and on.

4) Arrogance, which is in large part cultural.  I've written already about "playing the game".   It shows up in different ways.  When we first came here, a neighbor whose advice was invaluable during our first two years here, warned us never to let a Panamanian feel that he's "gotten ahead of you".  If that happens, he said, they will have nothing but contempt for you and you'll have nothing but trouble.  That applies either to lending them money or in fact treating them too well.  We did, with our first gardener, by giving him lunch AND paying him $10/8 hour day, which was extremely high at that time.  Now, it's nearly standard, but not then.

We also wanted to encourage him in his career aspirations.  He was going to the university in David at the time, and we started paying his tuition (which was an entirely $30/term).  Like most Americans, we wanted to help someone better himself.

He repaid us by starting to slack off on his work and slowly, slowly decreasing the amount of time he was spending here.  When I came back from a trip to Brasil, I found that he regularly was leaving an hour early.

We decided to have a talk with him, and put him under contract which he had resisted.  I had everything all ready one day, when he came to work without the power drill I had lent him and that he had promised to return that day.  When I asked him where the drill was, he nonchalantly said he wasn't done with what he had to do at home.  And of course, never bothered to call me on his cell phone to ask permission.

In my quiet and restrained fashion, I blew sky high, started yelling in Spanish, and fired him on the spot.  Drove him home, got my drill, and told him I'd find out about what was due him in severance pay.  Then contacted my lawyer in Panama City by email--we work very, very well that way--but inadvertently did not give her the entire picture.  As a result, we wound up paying him a severance package (pretty low--we had not employed him for that long and we only had him over once a week) that I now know we could have avoided because we had just cause.

Panamanian labor law is very generous to workers, and they have rights to severance pay that US workers do not have under the same conditions.  If you employ someone for tiempo completo--full time--over a period of just a few years, you can wind up owing the worker several thousand dollars in a severance package depending on how your work relationship ends.  If they quit, no problem.  But if you fire them, and you do not cover your buns, you can be in deep doodoo.

Case in point with our next door neighbor who is smack in the middle of an all-out fight wither their former employee.  He's claiming $3000.  He did very well in manipulating, over a period of months, our neighbors into just this side of firing him.  Had they done so, they would have no choice but to  pay the money.  That's not quite what happened but he's claiming they did.

There's even more that they did for him but I don't want to get into it because I don't want to identify people.

Over the years, they've lost a great deal of money through naive trust, doing things they never would have done in the US.  But I've never heard them so angry, furious over what they view as betrayal.  This time, I think they've learned.  Finally.

Fortunately, they have someone at the Department of Labor who agrees with them and is helping them out.  But it can be totally dependent on who you deal with as to which way the law is interpreted.

Me, I don't make a move without checking it out with our lawyer.  Everything I do goes past her.

6) Bordom.  It's a fact that Panamanian workers don't like to stay in one place or one job too long.  Darío has a real mix of work, for instance, that keeps him from getting bored.

There are no doubt other points except that I'm getting tired of writing.

However, you can find honest, competent workers who will give you real value for your money.  It's not easy, but you can find them.  When you do, hang on to them, because they are worth more than gold.

We are blessed with Darío, who is 68; he's retired and collects his Social Security, but still works, both for us and at a job in David.  I thought it was for the extra money, but our friends in Potrerillos, after much laughter and giggling, told us that it's more likely that he wants to get away from his wife! He is proud to the point of vanity about his ability to work harder than a younger man.  He has saved us enormous amounts of money, has given me invaluable advice when I've asked him.  Because of the incredibly hard work he's done in the heat of summer, my part in maintaining the property--weed eating--has been cut to about 25% of what it has been in the past 3 years and will go down even further when other areas can be mowed.  We joke and laugh together, we trade horror stories about near misses (he was polite when I told him about the near-miss on the lightning strike but it was clear that he thought I'd been an idiot), we share outraged self-righteousness over the prices we have to pay, and trade tips on the best places to shop.  He tells me what's going on in Potrerillos, and asks me about extremely intelligent, informed questions about events in the US.  We are completely comfortable with one another.

Being a male, naturally he adores being fussed over by women, and believe me, we fuss (I have this terrible feeling that we even coo).  He's something of a hypochondriac, and we more or less indulge him.  If he has a headache, he comes to us for Tylenol, which he loves.  We exchange remedies for various ailments and aches and pains.  I've learned not to scold him for working too hard in the sun, because latino machismo takes over, and he works even harder.  Almost always, I give him cookies, or part of a cake, or muffins to take home to his family.  One of his daughters and her children live with him and his wife, and I'm pretty sure he's supporting them.  The kids are cute and incredibly polite.   He's fascinated by the leaf lettuce I'm growing now, and I plan to give him a head when they mature.  

Yes, he most certainly has his limitations but then so do I.

Recently, we decided to raise his salary from $10/ 8 hour day to $12, starting the first of June.  Given the steep rise in the cost of living and truly grateful for his work, this was something we felt we wanted to do.  When I told him that, driving him home for some reason or another (usually he takes the bus), he was unable to look at me, choked up, and thanked me feelingly.  Since that time, he has worked even harder, if that's possible.

He's more than a worker but less than a family member.  Not quite a friend but not outside our our circle, either.

95% of me believes that he will continue to be so.  But there is that dispassionate 5% of me that knows Panamá, and that will sit back, watch and wait.


La Gringa said...

You could have just as easily written this blog about Honduras -- so many parallels.

I could go through point by point and say, yes, this happened to us or we've seen that, too, but I'll just say that I hope that readers thinking of moving to Central America believe you because they will experience it, sooner or later.

Congrats on finding Dario. I wish we were so lucky!

Joyce said...

We look upon Darío, at this point, as a treasure, to be nurtured carefully. He's not perfect by any means, by he's totally reliable and has skills that we really need around here. For example, he knows how to make the drainage ditches called cunetas here in Chiriquí. He finished the ones we really wanted just two days before the latest heavy rains hit here--they work like a charm. In doing so, he saved us at least $50 in materials, I don't count his labor, because we would have had to pay at least as much to have the media canas put in.

I'm trying to estimate how many people we hired before we came on him. We've had at least 7 before Darío. I may have missed someone through sheer numbers and weariness from dealing with the situation.

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