Monday, August 20, 2007

Interesting Industries

I met some interesting people today. One was the owner of the largest children’s jeans factory in Cochabamba. I was able to see all the production stages – from cutting the fabric to embroidering the designs (done with a Chinese machine that entered the designs into a computer and simultaneously directed many needles to move along the same patterns), sewing the pants, putting on buttons, washing, ironing and packing. The production process has always fascinated me, seeing how a well-designed system of machines and people can create large quantities of goods in a short time.

I was surprised to see that a majority of those sewing were male, whereas in most developing countries I’ve visited, this tends to be a woman’s job.

“The men are better here,” my colleague, Fernando, said.

“People marry early here,” expected the factory’s accountant. “The wives are at home with the babies and the men are sewing to provide for their families.”

The factory has been struggling to find workers, with people leaving constantly to either set up shop independently, or more frequently, to emigrate overseas. Due to the worker shortage, they have started to use the service of small-scale independent sewers, who produce jeans according to their patterns in their own home.

Almost no one is paid over $100 a month. I asked why they didn’t consider raising wages in order to retain staff. The constant retraining has its cost.

“Our company pays more than the other companies in the area for this type of work,” the accountant told me. But they forget that in this climate, comparing themselves only with Cochabamban companies is a limited view. The workers are looking beyond Cochabamba – to Santa Cruz, Spain, and the U.S. for potential work. The local industries need to offer wages that, while lower than the other destinations, are high enough to incentivize the workers to stay in their home area and with their families.

I think this will happen, only slowly. Already, the use of small scale producers working at home allows those contractors more flexibility and independence, an improvement of conditions from a fixed salary within a factory setting.

In the afternoon I met a couple that is among the most impressive I’ve met in Bolivia. Originally from Brazil, they emigrated to Bolivia eight years ago with $100. They used that $100 to buy ingredients to make Brazilian chocolates, which they sold on the streets. They brought them to pastry shops, then rented a small 1x2 meter market stall. There they added a few other products and were soon selling over 1,000 items a day.

They took a loan for $100 to buy an oven. Later, they borrowed $1200 to buy a motorcycle. After that, they took out subsequent loans to buy a car, and then to build their house. Further loans helped them to open and expand their restaurants.

Today they have a restaurant with two outlets in Cochabamba and they want to open one more. They are also considering expanding to Santa Cruz. They have assets of several hundred thousand dollars, built up in a span of eight years. While other people with such assets live luxurious lives, this family spends no more than $300 a month.

“We eat all our meals at the restaurant, and just have a simple breakfast at home,” the wife said. “We don’t need much.”

“For five years, all our money went to the children,” the husband said. “We had two children with genetic diseases. We poured all of our money into tests and treatments, but they just remained like this – frozen.” He hunched his shoulders together and made a pained face.

“Five years we worked for them,” he said, and he began to cry. “The first one died in November, only two and a half years old. The next month, in December the next one was born.”

He wiped his tears away, his voice broken. He spoke with a thick Portuguese accent. His wife continued with a calm face. “The second one was born healthy and we thought everything was OK. But in the third month, it started to have trouble moving and it turns out it had the same disease. My husband and I are both part Jewish and we are both carriers. It’s a recessive gene, so if one has only one, they are OK. We have one daughter that is alright. But the other two got the gene from both of us.”

The second child also lived to be only 2.5 years old.

“They would have terrible, racking convulsions,” the father said. “And we were constantly doing tests – urine, blood – every week. Because they were always sick, but could only get antibiotics if it was bacterial. So we were spending $100-150 a week just doing tests.”

“We lived through hell,” the mother said, and she also wiped tears from her eyes. “But now we are able to focus on building something.”

“Your angels are in heaven now,” said my colleague Celia, a young woman who believes strongly in the virgin of Urkupina. She not only danced, but walked the 14 kilometers at three in the morning to show her faith.

“Yes, they are waiting for us,” the father said.

This restaurant works only at lunchtime because of a lack of staff. They used to have 21 employees and now have only 14.

“There are no workers available,” they told me. They are putting out adds to try to bring in workers from other neighborhoods. When I asked if they considered raising wages, they said they were probably going to do so.

They gave us a sample of the chocolates made with condensed milk, that set them upon the path to success and they were as rich and delicious as they claimed. Since they claim their food has no competition in Cochabamba, I’m going to have my final lunch in Cochabamba there tomorrow.

One other interesting event today is that I saw Evo Morales house – where he lived before he became President. The house itself isn’t visible because it has a gate overhung with bouganvilleas. But it’s clear that it’s not very tall, or it could be seen.

“It’s a very modest home in a modest neighborhood,” my colleague Fernando said.

It seemed someone was living there in his absence and I could see laundry hanging on the line. Across the street was a small but pleasant park with a little operating fountain.

“This park wasn’t here before he became President,” Fernando told me.

“A perk of the Presidency?” I asked.

“Yes, but actually, if you look around, they haven’t developed this neighborhood much at all. The road is still stone and hasn’t been paved.” He was right. It was a big contrast from the nice paved road that ran all the way to the remote birthplace of the Kyrgyz President. Evo Morales is definitely a unique character among world leaders.

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