Many of you who read the national press regularly will know that since what has come to be known as the “Arab Spring“, many professional sectors in Algeria have experienced intense instability in the form of long and paralysing strikes. The recurring reason for all these strikes is the ‘low’ salaries. Many would say that financial incentives are usually the main motivation behind any strike anywhere. I agree but the point I will attempt to make here is concerned with our cultural outlook with regards to labour and the value of it.
There are many observations which are worth mentioning here:
- Algeria has a strong socialist culture when it comes to what is regarded as the ‘public sector’ and a fierce capitalist culture when it comes to the private sector. It has managed to combine the worst traits of the two ‘economic’ systems. By ‘culture’, I mean people’s perceptions (i.e. the workers).
- The majority of Algerians I come across, especially those sections of the population who are at their most productive life phase (i.e. youth), favour jobs in the public sector because it is strongly associated with job security but also lucrative idleness, as many employees of the public sector also engage in parallel commercial activities to enhance their income (this is illegal but nobody cares), often at the expense of their productivity in their workplace (and subsequently the quality of public services provided to the Algerian citizen).
- Most Algerians I know are convinced that they have the right to get paid employment in the public sector, as well as free housing and lots more other freebies which Algeria can surely afford given the soaring price of oil and gas. Furthermore, productivity bonuses are regarded as a right of every employee (i.e. an integral part of the basic salary) and the general philosophy is to subtract them from the salary of those employees who do not do anything at all whatsoever (like not coming to work at all alltogether, in which case they would still get the basic salary but not the productivity bonus) rather than only award them to those employees who make the extra mile and produce more or better quality work than theirs colleagues.
- Many Algerians are oblivious to the link between the amount of labour deployed/ quality of services provided and the amount of money to be paid. For them, salaries and other free public services are a sort of tax the government should pay them in order to gain access to the privileges of government. This is also why most Algerians believe that they must not pay taxes, as it makes no sense to pay thieves so that, in turn, they might rip you off even more. It makes more sense to rip the government off as much as one can and punish it for being the government (i.e. stealing the people’s money). This however doesn’t absolve the government from the obligation to provide good quality public services, because it simply should spend the money it steals on improving public services rather than asking the people to pay taxes. While I was waiting for the bus one day, I heard one man saying resentfully to his friend: “They probably spent millions constructing this fancy bus stop, most of which went into their pockets. Nobody asked us if we want a bus stop? Had they asked me, I would have said, no just give me the cash and I will do as I please with it“. I was disappointed at such ungratefulness as I thought that the new bus stop looked rather nice.
- Curiously, the capacity of assimilating the link between the amount of labour deployed/ quality of services provided and the amount of money to be paid is instantaneously restored within the Algerian brain as soon as it involves pocketing the money oneself. For example, a taxi driver will tell you that, should you complain about the fare he fixes, the time spent in traffic jams costs money which you should pay based on his own estimate of it and if you don’t like it you can walk. But is this curious sharpness of mind also found in the public sector? Well yes, because a public sector employee will tell you that, should you complain about the mediocre quality (not to say inexistence) of public services they are supposed to be providing, their investment in their work duties is directly proportional to their mediocre pay (a subtle hint for a teeny-weeny financial incentive from you perhaps?). I was once listening to the local radio and they broadcast the opinions of some workers in the public sector (I forgot which strike it was) and one lady came on air and said that she spends the majority of her working day chatting to colleagues because she finds that the salary she is paid only covers about 30 minutes work! So Algerian employees believe that it is also their right to decide how much they should be paid based on their own perception of their own worth.
- On another radio show which describes various professions by reaching out to people who work in the relevant sector, I heard one bus driver in the one and only Algerian public transport company argue that, given that he hasn’t got a car and so he needs to wake up at 4 in the morning to be on time to start his working day, his salary should be raised pro rata to account for the hours it takes him to actually get to his workplace and also the fact that he has to wake up earlier than others. So by a curious logic, employees seem to think they should be paid for the time spent getting to work as well as the time spent working and perhaps also the time spent recovering from work?
- In the recent medical workers strikes, one of the arguments presented was that increasing their salary will lead to the improvement of the quality of services provided to the patient. The same argument was used by teachers and university lecturers. This implies that if doctors and teachers do not think they are being paid as they believe they should be paid, they will act against the best interests of their patients/ students. This is very disturbing and I wonder how people can accept such arguments and see nothing wrong with them on the ethical side. The fact that the considerable pay rise university lecturers have benefited from recently has done nothing to improve the quality of their academic and pedagogical output rather proves, in my opinion, that increasing salaries does not lead to improvement in working ethics or quality of services in Algeria. On the contrary, I think it makes them even worse.
- It is generally believed in Algeria that those who work hard are pathetics fools. This is often inculcated to children by their own parents.
I found this blog interesting as it depicts a foreigner’s perception of our cultural attitude in the workplace. The author does apply some thought to rationalise incomprehensible (perhaps even counter-intuitive from an American perspective) professional behaviour shown by various Algerian workers. However, I am not sure it all can be boiled down to power balances between employers and employees (or State and citizens), even though it certainly has a big role to play in shaping our cultural outlook.
So I often wonder: if I were a manager, what would be the most effective way to persuade my Algerian employees to work better and more conscientiously?
I think we could benefit greatly, as a nation, from giving some serious thought to this question.