Thursday, May 1, 2008

Labor Day in Panama

Today is a big holiday in Panama…Labor Day. “May Day” is Labor Day throughout much of the world. And believe it or not, the concept of “Labor day” started in the USA…Chicago to be exact…around 1886. Its foundation was to promote labor unionization and was the beginning of the “weekend” concept. Before that people worked 6-7 days a week to survive and/or get ahead. I think a few million workers in Asia, India and elsewhere have still never heard of this weekend concept or a 40 hour work week for that matter. But here in Latin America they sure seem to have a lot of laws and rules protecting employee’s rights to MANY holidays, overtime pay and limited working hours.

In my life I have worked on both sides of this equation related to labor and management of labor. In the USA we call this division white collar/blue collar. Lots of status and class consciousness stipulated in those labels. Throughout this last century, children have been pressured to go to college to attain “white collar” status in the work force. Kids not educated or wealthy enough have been somewhat relegated to “blue collar” jobs in the trades or working on assembly lines. Another label for these people is “working class”, which may inherently suggest that “white collars” don’t work very much. What it really tends to divide in my mind is those that work at physical jobs and those who work in primarily mental or intellectual capacities…or management.

The whole world seems now made up of this very lopsided division of humanity. The masses do the manual labor…and the “minority” who manage, direct, run the financials or design the products and services. This minority tends to control 80% of the worlds assets and bank accounts. On top of this, you have the most extreme minority who seem to run the world at large… the white collar “government leaders”, who produce nothing but spend everything we produce and get taxed on. Blue collars AND white collars tend to defer to this ultimate minority on matters of their sovereignty and security in life. These government minorities rule on trade agreements, when and where we go to war, and yes, even the level of labor and environmental protections they want to enforce in society. Let’s call this minority the “white collar bureaucrats”. Everyone needs a label here…or you just aren’t respectable.

So today in Panama…all these workers are on holiday. Banks and commerce centers are closed. Government offices and service are closed. Its mostly just casinos and bars still opening today since all these “laborers” need somewhere to go and something to do with this free day. There MAY be a parade somewhere celebrating workers rights and causes. I haven’t heard of any promotions to that end. Actually…many will take tomorrow off also for a long 4 day weekend…another “elective” vacation day of which a number are constitutionally protected for each worker. I heard from a casino executive here in Panama City that the day after pay day (the 15th and 1st of each month), 35% of his scheduled workers do not show up for work, or minimally are HOURS late. So…he has to overschedule and over hire in order to cover the work forces over indulgence in payday activities…and their apparent lack of devotion to their jobs. The bars and casinos are chocked full every payday…the people enjoying the fruits of their labors in festive fashion, no matter what day of the week payday falls on. It is truly an example of the main cultural difference between Latins and Gringos. “Latins work to live, while Gringos live to work”. This helps explain to some of us foreigners the lack of respect for time and even basic service mentality in these countries. You are supposed to understand that if someone is late or doesn’t show up for work on a given day…or for an appointment…they were busy “living” and you just need to understand and flow with that. The only way you will ever manage people successfully in Panama is to understand this fundamental cultural reality. You will not change a whole culture. Unfortunately, for Panamanians this attitude will keep them well behind the jobs and industrial growth curve of other cultures such as Asia…and yes, even the North Americans. North America has an expensive work force and many costly employment laws/regulations as well. But, so far at least, there is still a sense of competitiveness in services and efficiency there compared to Central and South America…though one could argue services and efficiency has been in decline in the USA also for the past 25+ years. For sure, the unions and labor costs have caused huge losses in the USA working class to globalization and other markets. The pendulum always swings to extremes in this game between labor, management and government interventions in the global arena of life.

All the above being said, how DO you change a culture’s work ethic? How do you increase effectiveness of a workforce and motivate people to take pride in their work? I’m not sure there are easy answers and it would take generations of protracted effort to bring this about. My current thinking is it comes down to education…led by example. I think there are core VALUES involved in promoting better workmanship. I think many people have never been taught that they can accomplish any reasonable goal they have in their lives by hard work. Most people just go along with the flow like their parents and grandparents did. I’m Catholic because my parents were Catholic. I am a lawyer because my Dad was a lawyer. I went to college because my parents went to college…or forced me to go. Very few young people seem self directed or goal oriented anymore. When they are, they stand out in a crowd. And some start out as stars sometimes let the system and peer pressure beat that independence right out of their spirit. The society is full of negativism for anyone who wants to make more of themselves than their brother or circle of friends. It is looked upon as egoistic to aspire to heights no one else in your circle has aspired to or attained. Have you ever thought about all the negative comments or responses you get to ideas about change…even with your closest circle of friends or family? Whether for yourself or others? Everyone can think of a million reasons why you can’t do something or change. No time, no knowledge, no patience, no background. Everyone else is like “this”, why should I aspire to anything different? I really think this is core to why the masses don’t grow or evolve to the level they could in today’s technological and information filled world. There are more “bosses” and dictators in the world than there are “mentors” and motivators. There are more “yes men” than there are independent thinkers or people with backbone. There are few role models in our society that rise above the norm and pursue excellence. The only ones in society that do this and get societies accolades are sports stars, pop musicians and movie stars. These are the role models that somehow our world has become focused on. Just see the news every night to see which “role models” are getting our attention. It’s sick really.

When I was a child, my fictional reading role models were “The Hardy Boys” detective novels and Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. These books featured adventurers and independent type kids exploring life and solving problems themselves. Today’s kids seem all about “ninja warriors” and “video game heroes”. Is this evident to anyone else but me? Well, I guess there IS Harry Potter as well…but even those books seem rife with adult overtones/issues I’m not sure kids are quite mature enough to handle. Then again, kids today are forced at young ages to deal with homosexuality, drugs and guns in school…while at the same time not developing the basic skills of interviewing, getting and holding a job, or writing a complete sentence. Maybe I have gotten a little off topic on this diatribe, but I do think our core labor problems in the world starts at education and how we program our children. Are we raising them to be sheep, or leaders? To fall in line and do as society tells them to, or to excel and reach their personal goals and potentials based on their own sound reasoning and passions?

I pass though this May Day/Labor Day hoping that the world will renew its effort to foster competitive marketplaces and innovative solutions to the world’s problems. To this end we should strive to encourage children and even young adults to prepare themselves better, push themselves harder, in whatever positive direction they have passion for. Lately I have been asking younger people what their goals in life are. What they are passionate about. I am concerned with the percentages of blank, “deer in the headlights”, stares I am getting in response. Even in the work place, we need to lead by example more than words and challenge people to step up and grow. And somehow we need to focus more on rewards than on rights when it comes to labor and work. This is a competitive world and is getting more so. Those who want to eat well are going to have to win…and there will be no guarantees for losers. To produce winners, we need to start with realistic goals and expectations for each individual. That’s the reality of the world…and the competitive marketplace.

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