Too Many Cooks: The Labour Problem in Ecuador

The great thing about socialism is that there are enough jobs for everyone. Of course, fewer people are qualified for them but hey, you can’t cover all bases, can you? Ecuador has enough jobs going for anyone who wants to work, even if it’s just for a few centavos an hour. Whether this is something to take pride in is debatable; in fact, it’s a stark reminder that low unemployment figures do not necessarily reduce abject poverty. Only 9.8% of the population are unemployed, but does this figure count the window washers, street acrobats or the pudgy men wielding red rags who spend the entire day finding parking spaces for business people for 25 cents a go? The most recent reports show that a breathtaking 43% of Ecuadorians still live below the poverty line. You only need to spend a day in Guayaquil (Ecuador’s largest city) to notice the gaping rich/poor divide.

Cross over from one side of Avenida Francisco de Orellana, carefully dodging the somersaulting tykes at the traffic lights, and you enter the San Marino shopping mall, a towering air conditioned retail beast which is home to such outlets as Mango, Lacoste, Polo Ralph Lauren, Swarovski and – believe it or not – TGI Friday’s. It has all the traits of an American mall: youngsters on escalators explode with laughter at a youtube video on someone’s iPhone, scantily clad sales girls cock their heads seductively at window shoppers, while business folk in chinos and lambswool sweaters clamour for coffee and pastries in the plush food court. This is the playground of the idle rich, a reverent homage to Western commercialism. Moreover, this retail utopia is policed by preened, square-jawed men, heavily armed and not so much wearing, but modelling industrial footwear and kevlar.

There are plenty of unsettling observations to be made at the other end of the scale too. Blue-collar trades appear to be saturated with workers, only a handful of whom can do their job effectively. Example: there are more taxis than ordinary cars on the roads. Competition between drivers is fierce and most of them are useless; they never have change, don’t know where they’re going and will rip you off unless you negotiate the price beforehand. The construction industry also appears overwhelmed with underqualified misfits; it’s not uncommon for pedestrians to have to sidestep groups of sand-blasted, hot-headed builders standing round a hole, hands on hips, doing their utmost to solve a problem that, to all intents and purposes, doesn’t actually exist. One man’s initiative fails to inspire initiative in others – it merely triggers a herd mentality; no-one wants to be left out of any team effort. Want another? Security. In Ecuador, if you have something worth nicking, you need to invest in some hired…um, ´muscle´ is the wrong word. Security guards are everywhere you look and are well aware that their role amounts to nothing more than a deterrent. Few are trained in self defense. Many carry firepower they will never use. I have heard stories of security guards failing to intervene in a street robbery, simply because it´s not in their job description.

This rather black cloud that hangs over the nation does however have a striking silver lining. No matter how well or how badly they perform in their jobs, whatever they may be, virtually all Ecuadorians are acutely aware that to succeed in life, you have to work, even if your only source of income is from selling fruit at traffic lights or parking cars for businessmen. In proportion to the number of poor people, beggars are virtually non-existent and drug and alcohol addiction is just something you see in movies. As in most countries, the rich kids are spoilt. The poor kids are raised with honourable values that are fast disappearing from the formative status quo of many western countries. In other words, the labour problem in Ecuador is the exact antithesis of the British one: everyone is motivated, no-one is educated.

You´ve got to laugh.


2 Responses to “Too Many Cooks: The Labour Problem in Ecuador”

  1. May 21, 2012 at 3:46 am

    Great analysis here Pete, I’ve also seen it just as you narrated it! I found myself nodding in agreement all the way. Just 3days ago, I hailed a taxi who clearly knowing I am a foreigner tried to play a fast one on me. I was headed from Quicentro to somewhwere on Av.6 de Diciembre, we hadn’t gone 5m and the taxi-meter seemed to be on a run. I paid close attention without him knowing and noticed he had wired the system with a button on his gear handle, which he kept clicking and got the meter reading like 50cents/20m. I accousted him and he denied he wasn’t doing anything. That helped at least because he didn’t push it further.

    • 2 petercharles
      May 21, 2012 at 9:55 pm

      Wow, that guy sounds like a professional! It’s been nearly four years since I was there, and I certainly didn’t come across that level of sophistication when people tried to rip me off!

      Hope it hasn’t tarnished your opinion of Ecuador. As I’m sure you’ve discovered by now, it’s a beautiful country with so much to see and do. Enjoy your travels!

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