14medio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 13 May 2017 – Three employees circulate among the tables, so similar that they seem cast from the same mold. “I want to give a good image to the place,” says the owner of a flourishing cafe on 26th Street in Havana. Like him, many private businesses are imposing a standard on female employees: “Young, pretty, white and childless.”
With the boom of self-employment, new businesses are emerging everywhere, much more efficient than state services. However, there are also discriminatory patterns that privilege the physical appearance of the hired staff, above their professional abilities.
The waiters and other employees of the most prosperous businesses in the capital are mostly under 50, thin and white, and among them there is also an abundance of single women, blond and blue-eyed. The current legislation only requires that the contractor must be more than 17 years old and be a permanent resident on the Island.
The success of a business seems to be measured not only by the number of clients or revenues, but by a refined casting to choose the faces of those who serve the public. Many prefer physiognomy over the skills to serve a table or run a cash register.
The waiters and other employees of the most prosperous businesses in the capital are mostly under 50, thin and white, and among them there is also an abundance of single women, blond and blue-eyed
Behind the scenes, physical abilities seem to fading in importance. For the positions in the kitchens the “image” demands are less, but they don’t go away. The entrepreneur is obsessed with showing “an image of success” through appearances, often gleaned from magazines and movies.
Luisa is 59 and her monthly pension doesn’t stretch far enough to support her for one week. A few months ago she decided to find a job cleaning in some of the prosperous B&Bs in Old Havana where she lives. “I thought it was a question of being healthy and doing a good job,” she told 14ymedio.
After four interviews with the owners of several rental properties, the woman was no longer so convinced that the most important thing was her efficiency. “They looked a lot at my physical presence and one told me very clearly that she would not hire anyone with dentures.” Another potential employer asked if she was “dieting” to look “better.”
The Labor Code in force since 2014 addresses this subject, but the law is useless in most cases. The right to employment is governed by “equality” and “without discrimination on the basis of skin color, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, territorial origin, disability and any other distinction detrimental to human dignity.”
The deputy director of Employment of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, Idalmys Álvarez Mendive, says that self-employed workers “can request and receive the advice of the authorities” about their rights, but in practice very few do so.
The deputy director of Employment of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security says that self-employed “can request and receive advice from the authorities” about their rights, but very few do so
Yaimara hid her pregnancy as long as she could. “When the belly began to show the owner called and told me that I could not continue working,” says the employee, who worked for two years in an exclusive restaurant near the Habana Libre hotel. “They never made it clear to me that it was because of the child on the way, but it was obvious.”
The young woman was entitled to a maternity leave and a postnatal break period guaranteed by law, but confesses that with that money she received monthly on that benefit she could not buy “a single baby bottle.”
In the private sector, it is common to use “determined” contracts, which have a start date and an end date. When Yaimara concluded her maternity leave, she could only return to the previous job if the employer wanted her back, but her job was already occupied by another “younger and childless worker,” she said.
Of the more than 535,000 self-employed in the country, 31% are young people between 18 and 35 years of age and 32% are women, according to official data. But the figures published do not report details with regards to race and much less with regards to other physical qualities more difficult to measure.
“Many owners of private restaurants and coffee shops do not want to hire women with small children,” says Yaimara. “They are afraid that later there will be absences because the child is sick.” She recognizes that with having a family “everything becomes more difficult because in a private restaurant it is normal for an employee to work up to twelve hours each day and almost no one asks for a vacation.”
A lawyer specializing in labor issues confirmed that so far she has never received a case of litigation for the violation of the rights of a self-employed
The new Labor Code also states that “the daily working day is eight hours and on determined days there can be one additional hour per day provided it does not exceed the limit of 44 hours a week.”
A lawyer specializing in labor issues, who preferred anonymity, confirmed to this newspaper that so far she has never received a case of litigation for the violation of the rights of a self-employed. “That does not mean it does not happen all the time, but people feel that in the private sector anything goes.”
The National Labor Inspection Office has the power to impose fines of up to 2,000 Cuban pesos on offenders, in addition to closing the premises and temporarily or permanently suspending the license to operate. But, “it is not applied because workers in the non-state sector do not appeal to that mechanism,” says the lawyer.
“We must work on laws that are more closely related to what happens and that guarantee better protection for the self-employed, but the most important thing is the business culture of the owners,” she says. “They should seek efficiency and quality in employees beyond physical characteristics,” she says.
However, from dreams to reality still seems to be a very long way. “We are looking for a young, woman with a university degree with a good presence”, says an ad on a crowded classified site. In addition, they want “no children, no physical limitations.”